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ROGUE ENFORCER

 

John R. Monteith

 

Shakespir Edition

 

Copyright 2014 John Monteith

 

 

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

 

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

About the Author

 

CHAPTER 1

 

Pierre Renard stifled the familiar adrenaline rush of another world-shaping deal. Through eyes that had reflected steel blue radiance during his last check in a mirror, he watched the Argentine president pass before his nation’s blue and white standard and then stride across his office’s hardwood floor. As he circled the polished meeting table that filled his office, his would-be client stopped behind the white leather-padded armchair at the room’s opposite end and appeared to wrestle for his next thought.

Renard’s hunting snout sensed that the president’s bravado had yielded to edginess. Allowing his clever arguments in favor of bold military action to befuddle his victim, he salivated behind his vulpine fangs and perked his pointed fox ears to listen for an opportunity to pounce on his prey.

“I knew you would convince me this is the proper course of action,” the president said in English. “It’s what I want to do, and I knew it was the right path to follow ever since our first conversation about it. But now you must convince me it will work.”

As he lowered his cognac tumbler to the cherrywood desk, Renard accepted that his victim required additional convincing. He twisted to project his French-accented voice across the office.

“You know my reputation,” he said. “I have a distinguished track record of keeping regimes intact.”

“Yes, I am aware,” the president said, his words echoing off framed paintings of Argentine heroes past. “Your recent success in Taiwan is why you have my attention. But Taiwan has advanced naval and air forces while I have thirty-year-old destroyers and secondhand aircraft.”

“I agree,” Renard said as he turned and reached for his cognac. “But with Taiwan’s modest numbers, I held off China’s equally advanced and numerous forces. It’s not about the raw firepower. It’s about setting up the rules of engagement in one’s favor and planning for victory with the available assets.”

Renard heard the president’s approaching footfall as he lowered his tumbler again.

“Your work in Taiwan was impressive,” the president said as he moved into the Frenchman’s field of view. “You showed cunning using seaborne hydrophone arrays and restricted nuclear warfare to defeat one of the world’s largest submarine forces with a squadron of patrol craft.”

“This is what I do, President Gomez. I advise leaders how to preserve their rule, I plan the campaigns that lead to success, and I broker the arms deals to assure that my clients are equipped for victory.”

As Gomez returned to his chair, Renard noticed that the president stood at average height. It made sense, he realized, that a former A4 Skyhawk aviator would fit inside the cockpit of a small jet.

“Then I assume you have a plan already defined that will bring me success in the Malvinas?” Gomez asked.

“Of course,” Renard said. “I not only urge you to take military action against the British Empire, but I’ve already taken the liberty of setting the plan in motion on your behalf.”

“You haven’t placed me at risk, have you?”

“Of course not. I am merely repositioning my submarine into the South Atlantic.”

“You have a submarine of your own?”

“Indeed,” Renard said. “After decades of building wealth, domain expertise, and trust with key allies, I was finally able to broker a deal for myself where I have my own vessel.”

The president raised thick, dark eyebrows as Renard blew smoke into the air.

“Impressive, Mister Renard.”

“I share this with you in strict confidence, of course,” Renard said. “But I must also be candid about this asset that I intend to dedicate to your cause. It is a French-designed, Taiwanese-built Scorpène class submarine. State of the art electronics, weapons, and quieting supported by the MESMA air-independent-propulsion system. As the Taiwanese have built two additional submarines, they agreed to sell me mine with just one stipulation.”

“Stipulation? Just one?”

“Training,” Renard said. “I must train Taiwanese sailors. As part of the Cross-Straits ceasefire, the mainland Chinese have agreed to stop submerged operations within twelve miles of the Taiwanese coastline. The mainland fleet complies since it prefers to extend its operations and military influence hundreds of miles from its coast anyway, and it has no immediate intent to attack Taiwan.”

The president nodded as he brushed the flame of a lighter under a cigarette.

“You claim responsibility for this victory?” he asked as small clouds rose in front of his face.

“Indeed. This is, of course, a tactical win for the Taiwanese, but it hinders their ability to train their submarine sailors for their primary duties. They are strained to their limits finding staff for the submarines they have. They, therefore, agreed to let me purchase my submarine from them at a modest discount in exchange for training more of their sailors. Since my crew had already used this very vessel against the mainland and was comfortable with it, I thought it an excellent opportunity.”

The silent man seated next to Renard, the president’s chief of staff, cleared his throat. The tall, lithe man had become an afterthought to the conversation, and the Frenchman hoped he would remain so, but that the shadows on the man’s face revealed a potential adversary.

“Training new sailors from a foreign navy sounds like a liability,” Gomez said.

“I must carry a dozen of their sailors aboard for training purposes,” Renard said. “This, however, is a win for both parties. I don’t have to pay for the extra hands, and I’ve already had great success thus far mixing my crew with Taiwanese professionals. They are a capable people.”

“This worked for you in Taiwan, this hybrid crew?” Gomez asked. “In live combat against the Chinese?”

“Yes,” Renard said. “Except for my commanding officer, my crew are veterans of the French Navy, and they have served together under my charge for years aboard Scorpène class vessels and their slightly larger predecessors, the Agosta class. My commanding officer is my greatest find–my protégé–a former American submarine officer who fell on difficult circumstances that I was able to exploit for recruitment.”

Gomez reached across his desk and extended a pack of cigarettes.

“No, thank you,” Renard said. “I have my own brand. But I would appreciate the light, please.”

Chiding himself for his failure to give up smoking, Renard withdrew a pack of Marlboros from his sport coat. The president extended the flaming silver lighter, and the Frenchman enjoyed soothing puffs of nicotine.

“When you called on me,” Gomez said, “I was somewhat hesitant about taking military action against the British Empire. But I now see that I must strike the Malvinas to divert the nation from the economic crisis, maintain my presidency, and prevent panic and chaos.”

“Thirty-five years ago, the military junta that ruled your country arrived at the same conclusion,” Renard said. “They failed to predict the British response, but they were correct that they needed to take military action. Such steps unify a nation.”

“I agree. Plus, I also have the added motivation of the empire’s discovery of the oil deposits.”

Renard blew smoke into the president’s chambers.

“Precisely. You have both nationalism and economic relief as your end goals–twice the motivation of your predecessors and, if you will allow me to serve as your advisor and arms supplier, ten times the preparation.”

“To get to that oil and preserve my presidency,” Gomez said, “I will require a far different outcome than the campaign of thirty-five years ago. Back then, Prime Minister Thatcher surprised the junta and sent her fleet across the ocean and retook the islands. How can you guarantee me a different outcome?”

“He cannot,” the chief of staff said.

The voice carried authoritative neutrality, and the man’s dark eyes held glints of brilliance. Renard recognized the chief as the sole remaining risk to his deal.

“In fact, I can,” Renard said. “The president’s predecessors were unprepared. I will see that he avoids repeating their mistakes.”

“This is a grave risk,” the chief said. “We are choosing hostility when we should be remedying our economic problems.”

“Take drastic maneuvers, you mean?” Renard asked. “Austerity measures on the people? Requests for loans to world banks that see far too much risk to lend Argentina another Euro? Internal governmental spending restrictions? I think not.”

“Our economic experts believe we can persevere,” the chief said. “We must be patient and let our policies run their course.”

“I’ve waited long enough,” Gomez said. “So have the people. I do not blame them for their impatience, their rioting. They need a leader who takes action.”

“Thirty-five years of diplomacy, sir,” the chief said. “Thirty-five years of turning adversaries into economic allies. Thirty-five years recovering from an embarrassing loss fighting for islands populated by more sheep than humans.”

“Watch yourself,” Gomez said.

“Sir, we call the Malvinas by their correct name, but the rest of the world calls them the Falkland Islands because the British named them as such, pledged to defend them from us thirty-five years ago, and then did so soundly with a modest flotilla of negligible anti-submarine capability and with a single squadron of inferior, limping Sea Harrier jet fighters–to our shame.”

“That is no concern,” Gomez said. “There has never been shame in my regime, nor will there ever be any. When I take military action, it is for the sake of victory. Nothing less.”

“You would be angering a lion, sir. True, their global force size has shrunk since nineteen eighty two, but their presence in the Malvinas has grown. Not with our entire maritime forces could you do this. I urge you as your lead advisor, the man you’ve trusted your entire political career–disregard the counsel of this Frenchman.”

Renard swallowed, letting his adversary’s words linger in the air. He then bared his fangs and launched them at his rival’s neck.

“You have a vivid memory,” he said. “And accurate. However, you cite the actions of a junta that assumed foolishly that the British would yield the Falkland Islands without a fight. Now, if you wish to relegate the name ‘Falkland Islands’ to the footnotes of history, give them their proper name as the Malvinas, and extend your territorial waters outward to the fisheries and mineral deposits that you desperately need and deserve, you will acknowledge that your president is not the same fool of history who blundered in his vital assumptions of the military campaign.”

“I never even hinted that my president is a fool. You have no right to place such words in my mouth.”

“Then give your president the respect he deserves!”

The chief angled his jaw toward his boss.

“Sir, I urge you to follow a wiser course of action. The British are prepared to defend the islands. There will be a time to retake the Malvinas, but it is not now. Wait until you are in a position of strength.”

The president’s eyes turned black as his palm smacked his desktop.

“While I am president, Argentina will always be in a position of strength!”

Deducing that the president’s infamous short-fused rage would preserve the chief’s silence, the Frenchman nudged the conversation back to his preferred topics of planning.

“Your strength and resolve will be the keys to a clean and fast victory,” Renard said.

The color fell from Gomez’s face.

“Yes,” he said. “Strength and resolve.”

“There will be challenges and evaluation points where you may have to turn back,” Renard said. “But the odds favor you greatly. I would not be here otherwise.”

“I understand and appreciate your position,” Gomez said. “Let’s get back to the business of how this will work–if there are no more protests.”

The chief shook his head and pursed his lips.

“So, you’ve told me all I need to know about your perspective of my situation and the world’s position on it, and you have me convinced that I must take military against the British Empire in the South Atlantic Ocean.”

“Indeed.”

“You must tell me, who knows that you are repositioning a submarine across the globe toward my operational waters? This is a risk of attracting unwanted attention.”

“As a rule and courtesy, I always inform the United States of my intent for any submerged operations. But in this case, since I am having my vessel towed from the Pacific Ocean to your waters, I merely told my contacts in the United States that I was shipping my vessel into the area and would inform them later if I decided to undergo submerged operations.”

“You seem to enjoy a great deal of flexibility with the United States,” Gomez said.

“I’ve earned it.”

“I have difficulty believing they would allow you such flexibility based upon your past deeds,” Gomez said. “They aren’t ones to incur unnecessary risk based upon historical debts.”

Trying to suppress a smile, Renard glanced at the black sheen on his Christian Louboutin leather shoes. He realized that a quiet wisdom simmered underneath the machismo, durability, and flair that had earned Gomez the presidency.

“I have an open, unwritten contract to provide services should the United States fall short of available submarines, or, more likely, should they need a submarine to take action for which even the slightest possibility of their involvement being discovered would be an intolerable risk.”

“Action, such as challenging a British naval vessel?”

“Indeed,” Renard said. “More precisely, taking on a British submarine.”

Beside him, the chief of staff stirred and aimed his index finger at Renard’s nose.

“I agreed to remain silent about my misgivings in taking military action against the empire,” he said. “But ship for ship, they are arguably the world’s premiere submarine operators. You cannot hope to defeat a British nuclear-powered submarine with your ragtag mercenary crew.”

“Indeed I can,” Renard said, “if the proper trap is set. Submarine warfare is my primary and original area of expertise. I understand the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power, having commanded the French nuclear submarine, Améthyste. Unless you have comparable perspective, I recommend you remain silent until you seek the counsel of your top submarine experts.”

“I–”

“But wait,” Renard said. “I shall spare you the effort. You have no experts in operating nuclear-powered submarines, because you don’t have any nuclear-powered submarines.”

“Now listen–”

“No, you listen,” Renard said. “We shall next discuss the capabilities of my Scorpène submarine. It has acoustic drones capable of loitering in wait for passing adversaries, extending the acoustic detection range to thrice that of its organic, hull-based hydrophones. And thanks to a recent customization my Taiwanese colleagues added at my request, my vessel also has super-cavitating weapons capable of speeds of two-hundred knots.”

The chief’s features softened.

“Two-hundred knots?” he asked.

“Yes, and I would invite you to again hold your tongue until you discuss these abilities with your domestic experts. I would then, again, spare you the wasted time–you have no such experts because you have no such capabilities.”

Gomez frowned.

“Enough, Mister Renard. I admire a man of confidence, like myself. You have my ear, and although I will examine your plans with extreme scrutiny, I will give you the benefit of the doubt in your claims of capability. Continue.”

“Thank you, President Gomez. I mentioned that my submarine is being towed by a ship. That ship is filled with sea mines, which will be your primary weapon. Of course, this is why I am using very long cables to tow my submarine and have staffed my submarine with a bored but well-paid emergency skeletal crew. I could ill afford losing my submarine in transit to an accidental mine detonation.”

“Mines?”

“With timers,” Renard said. “Each mine is set to become inert within six months. Mines, as treacherous as they are, historically make for excellent deterrents. But you must take care to use them wisely to allow diplomacy after achieving your military goals. You will surround the Malvinas with mines as part of your action to retake them, but you want to show restraint as well.”

“If this takes more than six months?”

“Then we will lay more mines,” Renard said. “They are relatively cheap.”

The president shifted in his chair and lit a fresh cigarette, spurring Renard to withdraw a fresh Marlboro. After lighting up, he offered one to his defeated adversary. The chief rolled his eyes but accepted.

“Cheap, I agree,” Gomez said. “But who will lay them? British air and sea power is modest at the Malvinas, but it is a vigilant force supported by a surveillance network of merchant and fishing vessels. I do, however, have just enough attack aircraft to soften their defenses. Such action, of course, is brute force. You don’t appear to be a brute force sort of man.”

“Correct,” Renard said. “I am planning to avoid brute force, wanton destruction. You will take temporary control of the air and sea around the Malvinas, long enough to lay the mines.”

“Really? How?”

“Through the most delicate and risky stage of the plan,” Renard said. “You shall have temporary control of a British Type 45 destroyer. Specifically, six weeks from now, the HMS Dragon will relieve the HMS Dauntless of patrol duties in the Malvinas operational areas. Since I have already recruited a key member of the Dragon to lead a small team of mutineers, you shall have access to that vessel for at least three days where you shall control the skies over the Malvinas to lay mines–and to also soften the air defenses on the islands.”

The president tightened his lips, and his eyes narrowed.

“Impossible.”

“I would agree with you, President Gomez, except that recruiting traitors is also one of my key skills.”

“You claim to be a man of many skills,” Gomez said. “Give me an example.”

“The commanding officer of my submarine,” Renard said. “Ten years ago, I turned him against the United States. He’s since earned his clemency with a select few government leaders by taking part in the operations that have also earned me favor with the Americans, but I turned him nonetheless. And he wasn’t the first, nor will he be the last.”

“Even if I grant you that a British mutiny is possible, you cannot possibly base your entire plan for my success upon making a Brit turn on his countrymen.”

Renard exhaled smoke.

“No,” he said. “But should this mutiny aboard the Dragon fall short, we may have to resort to the artless brute force that you correctly surmised I detest.”

“Such is warfare, Mister Renard. I trust you know how to deal with the unplanned.”

The Frenchman’s thoughts drifted to images of a crippled Trident missile submarine, its bow crumpled by a wall of ice, its missile compartment charred by fire, and its conning tower peppered by aircraft gunfire. Ever since he accomplished his intent with that doomed vessel, bringing its nuclear warheads to Taiwan, he knew he could adapt to all circumstances.

“I’m sure you know that I have,” he said. “Like you said, President Gomez, such is warfare. Plans don’t always survive contact with the enemy, and I’ve had my share of occasions to adapt. But, of course, I prefer to develop plans that beget victory.”

“I have just one last question, and then I will take your plan to my military leaders for review.”

“Excellent,” Renard said. “I am more than happy to answer.”

“Why, Mister Renard?”

“Excuse me? I don’t understand.”

“Why me? Why Argentina? The fees you request for your services would alter the life of the average man, but you are no average man. You’re not doing this for the money. Why are you doing this?”

Renard’s tail bristled with the thrill of a successful hunt completed.

“I enjoy empowering my clients to achieve what they can only otherwise imagine without my intervention.”

“I believe you, Mister Renard. I truly do. But there must be more to it. Ego, perhaps?”

“You see much, President Gomez. If I had to put it in words, I would be challenged.”

“Humor me. What does this mean to you, personally?”

Renard inhaled, pondered, and then exhaled smoke.

“I get to play God again,” he said. “At least one more time.”

 

CHAPTER 2

 

Jake Slate gulped fire. It strung his throat, and sweet vapor burned as the aftertaste.

“Bacardi dark,” a man said over pounding house music.

When sober, Jake hated loud music and crowds, but alcohol’s haze had drowned sobriety a dozen drinks ago. His head bobbed with the throbbing bass beat.

His new drinking companion and his younger, quiet sidekick had tipped their Detroit Tiger ball caps in response to Jake’s request to share a table. Their broad shoulders filling flannel shirts, the duo introduced themselves as union welders. Consistent with his witness protection-like cover, Jake mentioned that he managed retail liquor distribution.

Nick, Jake’s older but smaller brother, mentioned his unemployed state, a believable story a decade after the Great Recession’s nuclear blast had devastated the city. Jake had warned Nick to avoid mentioning his career in deciphering psychic premonitions and helping people with his supposed healing energies.

Jake surveyed the room and admired its ethnic mix. To him, economic troubles, musical history, and automotive roots united Detroiters more than race divided them. What both irked him and enticed him was the smog of testosterone. Body odor and cologne hung in the air, daring the first bravado-fueled drunkard to throw a punch.

Against his failing wisdom, he wanted to be that first drunkard.

He scanned the bar for worthy prey. Something within his pseudo-fake life had snapped and turned him into an isolated, angry lion, and his inner animal tensed for rage.

He remembered a wild rage ten years earlier that a French arms dealer named Pierre Renard had exploited. With the promise of fortune and revenge, Renard had convinced him to hijack his Trident missile submarine. But stealing the submarine provided a short-lived distraction for Jake’s deep and perpetual anger. A bar fight, he rationalized, was an acceptable way to vent.

“Chaser!” the welder said.

Jake swallowed a draft beer, and the coolness soothed his throat. His brother leaned in and whispered.

“I don’t like it here, Jake.” Nick said.

“You don’t like it anywhere.”

Jake noted that Nick had refused shots and nursed a diet coke, claiming designated driver rights.

“That’s not the point,” Nick said. “There are tons of bars closer to home, but you dragged me here looking for trouble.”

“So what? You’re not pulling your psychic shit on me are you? You know how that crap bothers me. You think you can foretell the future. Are you getting a bad omen here?”

“No,” Nick said. “This has nothing to do with omens. Well, for the record, yeah, I have a bad sense. But that’s not why I spoke up. I mean that I thought you outgrew your angry phase, and now it looks like you’re getting ready to pick a fight.”

Snapshots of Jake’s life flashed through his clouded mind–photographs of a father he never knew, a mother’s alcohol-related car accident, a submarine’s commanding officer who purposely gave him HIV, a fugitive existence followed by service as a puppet and pawn, dashed hopes with a wife’s false pregnancy.

His nine-figure net worth, earned by a decade of supporting Pierre Renard’s plans, accentuated his void of purpose and his disdain for a god he couldn’t force himself to accept.

“It’s still in there,” he said. “The anger. Just let me keep drinking so I can douse the flames.”

Jake gulped the liquid, lifted his empty beer glass, and shouted across the table.

“Fill it up, boys. And get a new pitcher and shots. I’m buying the next round.”

He reflected that he could buy the bar and everyone in it, but the sense of belonging in the crowd escaped his reach. Except for the mastery of submarine tactics that made him an asset, he belonged nowhere and to no one. He knew his wife loved him, but her attempts to bond clanked off his heart like ice picks on steel.

The welder leaned forward, pointed, and yelled. Jake followed his finger behind his shoulder and noticed two young ladies.

“See that beauty behind you?”

“Yeah,” Jake said. “Sure.”

“Can you get her attention? I know her,” the welder said.

“Which one?”

Jake turned and aimed his palm at the lady behind him.

“This one?” Jake asked.

He shifted to the next, accidentally brushing the back of her sweater.

“Or this one?” he asked again.

Jake’s antics caught the intended girl’s attention. She saw the welder, rolled her eyes, and looked away.

“That’s her,” the welder said.

“I don’t think she knows you that well,” Jake said. “Or maybe, too well.”

“We used to date. Sort of.”

Jake felt a rough tap on his shoulder. He turned and saw a man with cropped hair and hollow, dark eyes staring through him.

“You like touching women?” hollow eyes asked.

“What are you talking about?” Jake asked.

“Don’t play stupid with me. I saw what you did.”

“I think you saw it wrong.”

“I saw what I saw.”

“Are you accusing me of something? I didn’t do anything.”

“So you’re a pervert and a liar,” hollow eyes said.

“I’m not going to argue with you. Let’s cut to the chase. What the fuck are you going to do about it?”

Shadows and lines cut across hollow eyes’ face.

“I’ll take you outside and teach you some manners.”

Jake measured the man’s build. He stood a few inches taller than himself, and his tee-shirt outlined bulky muscle. But he guessed that he had a twenty pound advantage, meaning that hollow eyes either knew how to fight bigger men, he had help, or both.

Jake leaned into Nick.

“Stay out of this. No matter what. I mean it.”

Careful to avoid exposure to a cheap shot, Jake sprang upward, moved beyond arm’s reach, and faced his adversary.

“I’ll be outside if you want to talk,” he said.

He worked through the crowd and pushed open the bar’s back door, feeling the encroaching winter’s chill. Stopping besides a dumpster, he bounced, twisted, and whipped his arms in circles to warm himself.

As minutes passed, Jake wondered if his bluff would die uncalled. But then three men, led by hollow eyes, walked out the door and stopped several paces away.

“Three against one,” Jake said.

“You asked for it,” hollow eyes said.

“Yeah,” Jake said. “I guess I’m just in the mood to kick someone’s ass, and you’re the dumb shit who volunteered. Am I going to pound your buddies here, too, or are they just gonna watch you bleed?”

“They’re gonna watch me tear your eyes out.”

As tactics to inflict pain and render hollow eyes unconscious flickered through Jake’s mind, a crack hammered through his head, his drunken field of vision tilted sideways, and his world turned black.

When his vision returned, he felt men holding his arms to their chests, exposing his torso to hollow eyes’ punches. With two men cheering their leader, Jake counted five total adversaries, and the ache in his jaw told him that he had let someone sneak up behind him for a sucker-punch.

“Punk!” hollow eyes said as he embedded his fist into Jake’s ribs.

Caught unprepared, Jake forewent the advanced technique of softening his midsection to diffuse the blow and instead tensed his muscles as armor. He screamed to tighten his body at impact.

His ribs felt bruised as he conceded that hollow eyes punched with power. Fearing that another blow might break bones, he tested his restraints.

The man on his right held a skillful thumb lock and leveraged respectable pressure against Jake’s elbow. His other arm enjoyed more freedom, its captor using unskilled strength and weight to hold him.

Jake dropped himself, forcing his restrainers to lurch forward. He then jumped up, lifted his left foot, and jabbed his heel into a captor’s foot.

He yanked his left arm free and pivoted to his right. His skilled captor made the mistake of remaining committed to his joint lock, and Jake punished him by ramming the butt of his free hand into his jaw. The man dropped to a knee.

The wounded-foot man staggered and telegraphed a right hook. Jake slipped aside the blow, parried it, and launched his leg under the extended arm. As he planted his knee into the man’s stomach, he felt the man’s body convulse and drop.

With two attackers down and two men appearing content to observe, Jake squared his shoulders toward hollow eyes.

Hollow eyes withdrew a knife from his jacket, and its blade reflected the parking lot’s overhead lights.

He led with a stab that Jake dodged, but he left no immediate opening for a counterattack. Taking the offensive, Jake channeled his anger into a series of brute force kicks into the man’s side. He then sneaked a snap kick between forearms and caught hollow eyes in the mouth. His assailant stunned, Jake stepped forward to achieve his evening’s goal.

Unleashing his inner lion, he swiped his elbow across the man’s temple, and hollow eyes went down. As the blade clanked against pavement, Jake straddled his victim, grabbed his jacket lapel, and roared.

“Fuck!”

Jake thought about his broken childhood, and he drove his fist into the man’s face.

“Fuck!”

He remembered the anger, fear, and betrayal that had ended his naval career, and he drove his fist into the man’s face.

“Fuck!”

He felt hopeless and void of purpose, and he drove his fist into the man’s face.

His vision blackened, and he repeated the blows in endless rhythm with his angry heart until one of his recovered victims stood over him and yelled.

“Dude, that’s enough!”

Jake looked at the man who stood rubbing his jaw.

“You want to go another round with me, jackass?”

“No, dude. It’s over. Just stop.”

Red rage subsided, and Jake lowered his fist. As he rose to his feet, he realized that hollow eyes lay motionless, his lungs unmoving.

“Oh, shit,” Jake said. “Call nine-one-one.”

“What?”

“Just do it!”

As the man stepped back and lifted a phone to his ear, Jake trotted into the bar. He grabbed his brother and commanded him to drive him home.

He climbed into the passenger seat, and in silence, Nick drove into the night. Once on the interstate, Jake picked up his phone.

“Who are you calling?” Nick asked.

“My babysitter.”

“Your wife is home with your step kids. You don’t have a babysitter tonight.”

“I mean the guy who babysits me.”

Few men committed treason and returned home, but after stealing a Trident missile submarine, Jake had worked enough pro-American submarine missions with Pierre Renard to earn his way back to a policed life in the United States.

For the first time since the CIA had handed him off to the FBI to monitor his life of parole mixed with witness protection, Jake appreciated having a federal agent at his disposal.

His latest FBI-parole officer had started his assignment three months ago and sounded groggy as he answered the phone.

“It’s late, Jake,” the FBI agent said. “What’s wrong?”

“I screwed up.”

“How bad?”

“I got into a bar fight,” Jake said. “I hurt someone bad. I may have killed him.”

“You know that’s stupid, but I’ll spare you the lecture on drinking and fighting.”

“That sounded like a lecture,” Jake said.

“Focus. What bar was it?”

Jake gave him the name and the city.

“I’ll monitor police and first responder traffic. Do you know who you hurt?”

“He drew a fucking knife on me!”

“That’s not what I asked.”

“I have no idea who he was. Damn it, I’m a stupid shit. I went out looking for this.”

“Calm down. How many witnesses saw you?”

“Shit, half the bar plus the guy’s posse. A good two dozen people at least.”

“Do you think anyone saw your car?”

“I don’t know,” Jake said. “How the hell should I know? Maybe not. We were parked far away.”

“I’ll get my hands on the police report. You might get lucky. It depends who saw what, who your victim is, and how bad you hurt him. It also helps if someone will confirm that he drew the knife.”

“Maybe,” Jake said. “But what if this blows up?”

“There’s a contingency plan for you getting into legal trouble. The FBI would claim you as our subject of interest for some multi-state crime spree, take over the case, and haul you across the country to start your life over. But you’re getting ahead of yourself. You sound drunk. You need to sleep it off.”

“Can I just go home?” Jake asked.

“Yeah. Go ahead. But keep your phone on. I’ll call you if local authorities happen to connect the dots to you tonight.”

“Thanks.”

Jake hung up and sank into his seat, but his brief relief evaporated as a sick guilt rose within him.

After Nick drove him to his home in suburban Detroit, Jake collapsed onto the couch in his office. Inebriation dragged him into a shallow and fitful sleep, and he awoke in the middle of the night. His heart raced, pumping alcohol’s toxins and self-loathing through his veins.

Anxious curiosity compelled him to roust his computer to life and log in to his secure communication page. As he hoped and feared, his FBI babysitter had left him a message.

The news hit hard. He had spent a decade sending countless men to their graves in naval exchanges and even with small arms, but he had never beaten a man to death–until now.

Dead on arrival due to closed head trauma.

The report mentioned that his victim was a mid-ranking member of a gang under surveillance for drug trafficking and that his death would likely be ruled a hit by a rival gang.

Jake believed he would escape legal persecution, but bile rose within him. He closed the message but noticed another unread note.

He opened it and saw the request from Pierre Renard to join him on a new assignment.

Jake had attempted to refuse Renard on prior assignments. He had even left assignments in mid-execution. But after letting his rage push him across a line, he wanted to run away.

He digested the note’s brief contents, and he ruminated over the concept of commanding Renard’s submarine in support of Argentina’s strategic interests. His tired, shaken, and poisoned mind struggled to imagine the purpose and the details, and he stopped trying.

He would be patient and call Renard later in the morning to unravel the mystery. He expected to learn of a mission, a client, and a strategy to establish national boundaries. Danger would come with the territory, but his present state of mind left him uncaring.

Flying to the bottom of the world to command a submarine for any reason, either imaginable or beyond speculation, offered him the escape he needed.

 

CHAPTER 3

 

“Who is the other?”

Jeongkwan Kim cringed when he realized he had spoken the words aloud. His bunk mate on the Romeo class submarine rolled to his side, and the room fell silent except for Kim’s heartbeat and the deep breathing of sleep.

He scanned faces of his shipmates in his mind, speculating the identity of the other, his secret accomplice. The question had plagued him since leaving the naval base in Haeju, North Korea days earlier, and it had consumed him in the final hours motionless on his back.

He lowered his sneakers to the deck plates, propped open his bunk, and rummaged for canisters of compressed hydrogen cyanide gas. They weighed heavy against his thighs as he slid them into his overall pockets, but they made no sound as he crept away.

He ducked through a door into the engineering compartment and heard the gentle hum of the propulsion motor. Pushing his hands into his overalls, he turned the corner around an electronic equipment cabinet and spotted a man in a sweaty jumpsuit seated before a control panel.

“What brings you back here, Kim?”

“Looking for Li,” Kim said.

“Why?”

“Can’t sleep,” Kim said. “I’m trying to figure out how to fix that lube oil leak.”

He hoped the man wouldn’t pry further.

“He’s near the shaft bearing looking at it now.”

Kim nodded and darted away. He turned and descended a ladder through a machined lip welded between deck plates. A cubby hole by his ear caught his attention.

He unlatched the cubby door and withdrew an air mask. While plugging the mask’s feeder hose into an emergency air line, he glanced at his watch. He was early.

Considering that the other agent might act ahead of schedule, he pushed the mask against his face. Synthetic rubber pinched his cheeks as he inhaled stale, metallic air from the emergency header.

He heard footsteps on the plates above and pressed his back against a lube oil tank until the sailors departed.

Minutes passed in solitude, and Kim reflected upon the Chinese agents who had approached him with promises and threats. The money would feed his family for years, and his cooperation assured that they would live to spend it.

Hesitating, he doubted his resolve, but the Chinese said that the other agent would strike from the forward compartment while he struck from the aft. The submarine crew was doomed regardless of his compliance, he knew. He swallowed, blinked, and reached for a door latch.

He pulled and heard the grumbling whir of fans. The canister he lifted from his pocket filled his palm, and as his finger curled, the pin yielded slowly. He heard a hiss and saw billowing compressed gas.

He tossed the canister into the fan room and followed it with its twin. He shut the door, backed up against the lube oil tank, and waited.

Minutes passed as he slowed his breathing. He heard a distant thud that he hoped was a collapsing corpse, and the thought relieved and horrified him.

Time slogged forward as Kim prayed that the gas massacred the crew. He pinched the air hose and snapped it free. Holding his breath, he climbed the ladder and sought a new emergency air connection. He reached and pressed the hose into the header and inhaled.

As he caught his breath, he noticed the unmoving form of the last man he had spoken to. He detached his air hose, stepped over the corpse, and plugged in to fresh air.

The body below him revealed pinkish skin from the acute poisoning. Kim balanced his weight above his former colleague and twisted a control knob. The propulsion motor murmured its baritone eulogy and hummed to a halt.

Kim crept forward to a new feeder. He inhaled several breaths before stooping through the door into the main compartment. His heart raced with the anticipation of meeting the other.

Entering the control room, he glanced at the carnage strewn about the deck plates. He snapped into a fresh air line and breathed.

Motion caught his eye, and he saw a man reaching for an air manifold. The man turned, disengaged, and walked toward Kim. The mask scrunched the face into an unrecognizable form, but Kim knew the uniform.

“Captain?” he asked.

“Whom did you expect, boy?”

The captain’s mask muffled his words.

“I had no idea,” Kim said. “They didn’t tell me.”

“They told you all you needed to know. Now we have work to do.”

The captain snapped his air hose free and joined Kim at his manifold.

“What sort of work?” Kim asked.

Kim saw the captain’s hands in front of his mask and felt his head being wrenched down. He resisted, and the mask slid from his face.

He suppressed his instinct to inhale and swatted away the captain’s arms. He turned and kicked the captain’s stomach. As the captain staggered, Kim mashed his mask to his face and squeezed his lungs empty. Poisoned air blew by his cheeks, and he inhaled. He felt dizzy.

As the captain lunged for him, Kim reached for his enemy’s hose, twisted, and pulled. He seized his adversary’s lifeline, held its air-starved nozzle against his chest, and moved in front of the air manifold.

He absorbed punches, and his ribs ached, but his arm stayed true holding his mask to his face. The punching stopped, and then desperate hands probed, groped, and tugged at the tubing. His arm burning, Kim denied the captain his hose, and the pulling stopped.

The captain fell to the deck, convulsed, and died.

Kim steadied his breathing and surveyed the control room. A digital display indicated that the submarine had drifted to a stop and was rising to the surface where it would be exposed.

He reflected that surfacing the Romeo was necessary in the Chinese plan to steal it. His instructions were to radio an infiltration force once surfaced.

But he questioned his instructions. Knowing the other agent’s identity, Kim wondered why the Chinese had plotted his death at the captain’s hands. Confusion quickened his pulse, and growing anger in his betrayal pumped throbbing blood through his neck.

A survival instinct focusing him, he calmed himself and changed his plans. He studied a navigation chart and noticed land eighteen nautical miles away. He memorized its direction.

As the submarine bobbed in surface swells, Kim inhaled, disconnected from the manifold, and walked to the hatch. He plugged in, inhaled several times, and detached.

Not knowing the differential pressure between the submarine and the outside world, he rotated the hatch lock half way, heard hissing wind, and retreated to a manifold to breathe.

Returning to the hatch, he grabbed the ladder with one hand and twisted the locking mechanism with the other. The hatch folded open as the cabin pressure equalized with the outside air. Kim climbed, leaned over the hatch lip onto glistening metal, and tore off his mask.

He breathed moist, warm summer air and pulled himself to his feet. He noted the angle of the moon and his memorized direction to land relative to the bow. He expected the water to be uncomfortable but survivable.

Before jumping, he scanned all horizons. He thought he saw a dark ship approaching with a low, ominous silhouette from behind the submarine, but he didn’t linger to find out.

As he dove into the Yellow Sea, the riddle’s answer revealed itself to his jaded mind. There was only one, the Romeo’s captain, but the Chinese needed insurance to verify their agent’s compliance. He, Kim, the lowly, vulnerable technician, provided that insurance.

He was the other.

CHAPTER 4

Pierre Renard tugged at his gray blazer and sparked flint into flame under his Marlboro. A breeze carried the scent of asphalt and salt across his face as he watched Jake Slate descend the jet’s stairway to the tarmac. His protégé appeared tired and agitated.

“It’s been a while, mon ami,” he said.

“Don’t you have a war to run?” Jake asked.

“The campaign will survive during my absence from the command center.”

Renard blew smoke.

“I thought you quit,” Jake said.

“A temporary indulgence during operations.”

Renard felt Jake pulling him into a hug and cringed.

“You know how I loathe this.”

“Yes.”

“Then why do you insist?” Renard asked.

Jake’s arms became vice grips as he squeezed. Renard squirmed until the pressure subsided.

“Because I know how you loathe it.”

 

*

Half the world’s second tier nations desired Renard’s arms-equipping and military advisory services. The other half sought his pelt for their mantles.

He had chosen and abandoned enough sides to mistrust all but his best clients, Taiwan providing him an ecosystem isolated from vengeful furriers but dense with nourishment. An opportunistic feeder, Renard had tracked his Asian clients to rich sources of imported weapons commissions and brilliant military victories. With vulpine cunning, he had crafted a hunt for his den mates, and he expected Jake Slate to pounce on their most prized prey.

Renard had found Jake distant during the ride from the tarmac and wrestled to squeeze banal information from him about his attempt to live a simple life in Michigan. He abandoned hope of reading Jake’s mental state while escorting him through security checkpoints.

Jake beside him, he entered the Keelung command center and felt two dozen eyes rise from an electronic navigation chart. The chief of staff stood straight.

“A hero has returned,” Admiral Ye said in English. “Welcome, Mister Slate.”

Renard sensed Jake’s hesitation and whispered.

“Go on. You remember him. Shake the man’s hand.”

“I’m not feeling it,” Jake said.

“There is nothing to feel. You’re just fatigued.”

“No,” Jake said. “It’s more than that. Something’s wrong. I don’t belong here.”

“Few welcome combat,” Renard said. “But it’s our fate. You are pursuing your destiny, man, I assure you.”

Renard felt Jake brush by him to greet the admiral. Gestures followed that repositioned planners around the navigational chart.

“We will speak English while briefing Mister Slate on the operation,” Admiral Ye said.

Renard nodded to his translator who moved beside the officers he recognized as having the poorest English skills.

As Renard looked down, a myriad of lights representing shipping dimmed, and baby blue lines rose to connect Taiwan across island chains to Okinawa and to the Philippines.

“The sound surveillance arrays,” Admiral Ye said, “are operational. They have tracked seventeen mainland submarines in passing east into the Philippine Sea.”

Five red dots framed by inverted semicircles shone east of Okinawa and south of Japan’s mainland.

“Japanese assets are tracking these five mainland submarines,” Ye said. “The other eleven are at large. Since we control the air and surface to the east of the arrays, these submarines are the primary threat.”

“What good are sound arrays that tell you you’re being overwhelmed by submarines?” Jake asked.

“An excellent question,” Renard said. “I advised the construction of these two arrays for a solitary purpose. They were laid to protect incoming shipping from either direction–from Japanese islands or from the Philippines.”

“You brought me here to escort convoys?” Jake asked.

“Nonsense,” Renard said. “There will be no escorting per se, as there will be a constant influx of supply shipping. But protection to shipping will be provided by air cover and by stealth vessels patrolling the hydrophone arrays.”

“So why do you need me?”

“Admiral Ye, will you demonstrate?” Renard asked.

As Admiral Ye wiggled his thumb across a touch pad, a dot traced an arc on the chart and stopped eighty miles southeast of Keelung in the Japanese waters surrounding the island of Yonaguni.

“You will lead the Hai Ming submarine,” Renard said, “in a minefield egress operation. The Hai Ming is a licensed indigenous replica of the Scorpène class. You are quite familiar with it, as is your crew.”

“Minefield egress?” Jake asked. “You summoned me half way across the world for that?”

Renard met Jake’s stare and exhaled smoke.

“Will you excuse us, Admiral Ye?” he asked.

The chief of staff moved to Renard and spoke softly.

“I need that submarine on this operation–with or without Slate,” Ye said. “I prefer with him.”

“I will earn his commitment,” Renard said.

“He seems hesitant,” Ye said. “This is not how I remembered him.”

“I think I know the issue,” Renard said. “Can you get a video feed to his wife?”

“I need fifteen minutes.”

“Thank you,” Renard said.

Ye nodded and snapped a command in Mandarin. A sea of naval uniforms followed him through a door. Watch officers remained seated at consoles around the navigation chart where Renard enjoyed privacy with his protégé.

“I’ll get you time to speak to your wife.”

“I miss her,” Jake said. “How did you know?”

“Because you are still resisting who you are,” Renard said. “You pretend that you desire a simple bedroom community life, yet here you are.”

“I was forced.”

“You were nudged,” Renard said. “Rickets hardly applied pressure.”

“He didn’t have to. My wife and stepchildren are open targets. I can’t run anymore.”

Renard blew smoke.

“Somehow,” he said, “I suspect that you are here by your own volition.”

“I may be blindly trusting you,” Jake said.

“You’ve done so before.”

“But a mine egress operation? Driving a submarine through a minefield is suicide.”

“Of course,” Renard said. “But your submarine is already free of the minefield.”

“That wasn’t in Rickets’ briefing.”

“Taiwan and the United States don’t share all intelligence,” Renard said. “I’ll show you how you’re soon to shape the world.”

He turned the corner and grasped a handheld touchscreen. He tapped icons and nodded to the chart.

“After the prior episode of Chinese aggression, I advised Taiwan to establish a secret and submerged submarine pen free of contested waters.”

“No shit?”

“Indeed,” Renard said. “At the first indication that China was laying mines around Taiwan, a skeletal crew absconded with the Hai Ming.”

“Where?”

“Here, carved inside the Pengjia Islet.”

Renard tapped his controller and maneuvered a blue dot to the northeast of Keelung.

“There’s nothing there,” Jake said.

“Precisely. It’s so small that it’s invisible on this chart scale. It was little more than a lighthouse until, thanks to my foresight, it became a safe supply and repair haven for submarines.”

“You still haven’t said why you want me to lead a minefield egress operation.”

“The greatest threat to the stealth patrol craft will not be the mines themselves but the submarines awaiting them at the edge of the minefield.”

“Where’s the edge and how do you know?”

“China wisely announced the areas of exclusion to keep international shipping away,” Renard said. “They are making sure to limit this campaign to a civil affair.”

Jake raised his voice.

“It’s practically a world war.”

“In appearance only. Look more carefully at events.”

“Electromagnetic pulse attack over Seoul. Tanks rolling into Israel. North Koreans burrowing through tunnels across the DMZ. The Chinese Navy playing cat and mouse with Japan like the Cold War.”

“It’s a surgically crafted mélange of misdirection and puppetry designed for one aim–global acceptance of a Chinese military presence on its once-renegade province of Taiwan.”

“You see that as the sole outcome, through all this violence? How?”

“Observation, deduction, interpretation of Chinese language from diplomatic channels. They want a permanent force on the island. The rest is subterfuge.”

“What about Korea?”

“It was little political risk for them to instruct the North Koreans how to use a nuclear weapon at the proper yield and altitude over Seoul to cripple its electronic systems.”

“To what end?”

“For the Chinese, a distraction that consumes American attention. For the North Koreans, respect. No outsiders will risk boots on the ground for a peninsular affair, and a gesture of respect, be it a seat at a council or a lifting of a trade restriction, will earn a voluntary withdrawal of North Korean forces. Though both America and Japan must turn their attention to the peninsula, the outcome is already predicable.”

“And Israel?”

“Money and arms were given to her enemies who hope to take back a slice of Israel, but as history has proven, Israeli resolve will prevail. From the Chinese perspective, an American carrier strike group is consumed monitoring and supporting Israel.”

“What about Japan?”

Renard blew smoke.

“You said it yourself,” Renard said. “It’s a game of cat and mouse like the Cold War. The Chinese are violating no laws and intend no act of hostility, but American forces must watch Chinese assets that are harassing Japan.”

“And Taiwan is left alone.”

“Indeed,” he said. “With the magnitude of global stress, any nation who wishes to ally against China can meet its obligations and rightfully claim victory by returning everything else to the status quo, but Taiwan must remain at arm’s length.”

“The risk is too great to challenge China for Taiwan,” Jake said, “and the reward too small.”

“Precisely. Each ally will yield to the temptation to coin Taiwan as an internal affair. But financial markets will remain in turmoil for years, and…”

Renard hesitated and reflected upon his life’s greatest effort.

“And what?”

“I’ve worked too hard to let this happen. We both have.”

“Then what’s my goal?” Jake asked. “If it’s all settled, then what’s everyone fighting for here?”

“The permanent Chinese presence on Taiwan will vary between a complete and outright occupation and a symbolic outpost, depending who has the strongest position during the ceasefire negotiations. Your job is to assure it’s the latter.”

“By springing the stealth patrol craft free to protect incoming shipping from submarines and keeping Taiwan fueled for the fight?”

“Indeed.”

“You’re asking a lot from small patrol craft.”

“They have an advantage.”

“The hydrophone arrays. I get that. But that’s shitty targeting data at best for those little ships without sonar systems.”

“Agreed,” Renard said. “Except that I’ve armed them for limited use of tactical nuclear weapons.”

Jake raised an eyebrow.

“Seriously?”

“Picture a tactical barrage of small-yield depth charges launched in a pattern around the target. The crudest hint of a submarine’s presence yields its doom.”

“And the doom of any other submarine that’s nearby.”

“The weapons can be selectively armed based upon tighter targeting data and the location of friendly assets.”

“Sounds like I’ll be a Guinea Pig.”

“You’ll be safe, provided you follow my plan. It’s orchestrated to optimize the tactical assets of your submarine and the skill of your team.”

“The whole gang is back?”

“I had to hire new junior operators after making millionaires out of their predecessors, but all the senior ones have returned because they are addicted.”

“The Taiwanese team? Same arrangement as last time?”

“Of course. Support of your crew, and an executive officer who reports to you but who is formally in command.”

“It’s not Sean Wu? He had talent.”

Renard felt the melancholy of a lost comrade.

“Sadly, our former colleague perished leading the Hai Lang into a noble but fateful one-for-one exchange with a Chinese Kilo class submarine.”

“That’s not–”

“International news. No, nor will it be until this campaign is decided. Your executive officer will be a youngster who is capable but inexperienced. The remaining experienced men are patrolling aboard the Sea Tiger or Sea Dragon, but the best are entombed inside the Hai Lang.”

“I see why you need me,” Jake said. “I’m ready. How do I get to Pengjia and my submarine?”

Renard cleared his throat.

“Via aircraft.”

“What sort of aircraft? That air space is contested, if I’m reading the colors on that chart right.”

“An aircraft from which, with the assistance of a tandem professional, you will jump at high altitude and glide via parachute to reach the islet.”

“Shit. Fine. I’ve jumped before. Then what?”

“And then you will prove to me once again,” Renard said, “that you are indeed charmed.”

 

CHAPTER 5

 

Dao Chan barked in Mandarin at his executive officer, Lieutenant Huang Gao.

“Get below! Get below!”

“What?”

Chan pointed at the horizon where he had seen the gun muzzle flash. He watched in horror as he beheld another brilliant burst. A third flash caught his eye, and he cringed as the ocean erupted over his shoulder.

He slapped the shoulder of his executive officer as he brushed by. Terrified eyes stared at him through a mask.

“You’ve scuttled the ship?” Chan asked.

He nodded at the fishing vessel that had brought his crew to the abandoned Romeo class submarine.

“Yes, captain. It’s flooding.”

“Take us to full speed and dive. Warm up a salvo and open the outer doors. I will close the hatch behind me.”

Gao disappeared into the Romeo, and the sea exploded twice again. Droplets pelted Chan’s back.

He pressed binoculars against his eyes and stared in the darkness. A silhouette became recognizable, and its cannon fired again.

As water rushed over the bow of the deck submerging below Chan’s feet, a projectile whistled over his head. The sea erupted again.

He squeezed his cheeks into his mask and tasted forced air fed from the canister at his chest. He raced down the manhole and closed its hatch. The ocean popped and rumbled as a round exploded outside the hull.

As he steadied himself on the downward sloping deck, the executive officer met him. The fear in his voice came through the speaker of his forced air ensemble.

“We are accelerating through eight knots, sir.”

“The weapons?” Chan asked.

“Three minutes remaining on warm up.”

The next three cannon rounds shook the deck plates, but Chan’s pulse slowed as the Romeo plummeted below danger.

“Level us out at forty meters,” he said.

“Done, sir,” Gao said.

“Is the ship secure?”

“Say again, sir?”

“Secure?” Chan asked. “I sent armed men into this ship first for a reason.”

“Initial sweep is negative, sir. The detailed search is underway.”

“Good. Where is the commanding officer?”

Gao pointed at the body of the North Korean vessel’s former captain.

“Dead, sir.”

“That explains why we have no warmed up weapons,” Chan said. “Come here.”

Chan stepped over a corpse to the shoulder of a sailor at a sonar console. His executive officer joined him.

“Do you have the hostile vessel on the bow array?”

“Only the transient noise of their cannon fire, sir,” Gao said.

“Transmit active to attempt ranging,” Chan said. “In ninety seconds, I shoot down their bearing.”

“What if it’s not an antisubmarine vessel, sir?”

“It is,” Chan said. “Pohang class corvette.”

“You could tell?”

“My best assessment under the circumstances.”

Chan glared at the sonar screen. It became fuzzy with the noise of the Romeo’s own movement.

“Wait,” Chan said. “Cease transmitting and slow to five knots. Pass the word for everyone to remain still.”

The sonar screen became muted until a loud trace fell upon it. The young sailor seated before Chan pressed ear muffs into his head, nodded, and pointed at the screen.

“That’s all I need,” Chan said.

“Active sonar emissions from the corvette?” Gao asked.

“Yes. Get a firing solution to that target’s active sonar. Box it in with a salvo, one torpedo lagging, one leading. I want to fire when the weapons are ready.”

Seconds passed, and another active emission rose on the sonar screen.

“They may have an active sonar return on us.”

“If they are steaming fast enough to matter, they may not,” Chan said. “Plus our torpedoes are bigger, faster, and will be closing on them head on while we run from theirs.”

“They may have called for help, sir, such as helicopters.”

“Fight this battle, Gao. Not the next one.”

A masked sailor uttered something at Gao that Chan could not hear, but he gleaned the meaning.

“Weapons ready!” Gao said.

“Shoot both tubes!” Chan said.

Pneumatic pressure screeched through pipes and echoed throughout the submarine. Chan glanced at the sonar screen and saw two lines diverging as his weapons bracketed the encroaching corvette.

“Full speed ahead, right ten degrees rudder, dive to two hundred meters.”

North Korean sailor corpses rolled on the deck as men seated in front of control yokes maneuvered the ship. Two faint lines grew on the sonar display that Chan recognized as the corvette’s incoming weapons splashing into the water from deck-mounted tubes.

“They are too far away for a trailing shot. Their weapons will run out of fuel if we can maintain propulsion.”

“I pray you’re right, sir,” Gao said.

Chan watched the splashes on the sonar display disappear and give rise to the sound of torpedo blades.

“The shots appear accurate,” he said. “We need speed.”

“Passing twelve knots, sir. Twenty minutes of battery remaining.”

“This will be close,” Chan said.

He hadn’t expected mortal combat threatening him before he could assume command of his maverick submarine. He noted tension in his muscles but assured himself that he carried himself with confidence.

“Sir, the first group of men have only five minutes of air remaining.”

“If we surface to ventilate, we risk being run down and attacked by cannons.”

“If we don’t, men will die in five minutes, sir.”

“Pass the word to have the men find masks for the ship’s emergency air system.”

“You would have them switch masks in a cyanide atmosphere, sir?”

“If it comes down to that or suffocating, yes.”

Chan probed his mind for a new plan.

“There are atmosphere sensing kits in the engineering spaces, are there not?”

“If this ship is true to our homemade submarines, as it should be, then yes.”

“It is. We sold the North Koreans this vessel, and there is no reason they would store the kits elsewhere. Measure cyanide levels in all compartments. Have the men with limited air gather in the cleanest space.”

Chan straddled a corpse and looked over the shoulder of a sailor at a weapon control screen. He saw what he wanted.

“Our salvo is active,” he said.

A sailor nodded his confirmation, and Chan returned to the sonar operator’s shoulder. One incoming weapon angled away, but the other maintained its course toward his Romeo.

“Increase speed to flank,” Chan said.

“Battery life is now fifteen minutes,” Gao said. “Speed is increased to thirteen knots.”

A sailor with a glass tube and rubber suction bulb entered the compartment and announced that the cleanest air in the submarine was the control room.

“Have the men with limited air gather here,” Chan said.

A half dozen men crammed into the crowded room, and Chan recognized risk as the cost of command.

“If I pass out or die,” he said. “Surface, ventilate, and take down that corvette.”

He knelt and lifted the mask from his deceased predecessor. As he plugged it into the ship’s emergency air line, he welcomed the high-pressure hiss. He drew in a breath, removed his mask, and pulled the straps of the new one over his head.

While he cracked the air tight seal with his finger, he coughed his lungs empty and forced air from his mask. He released the rubbery seal to his face and inhaled from the header.

His world turned a dizzy red, and his legs felt wobbly. But he stood and he breathed. After calming himself with multiple breaths, he barked his order.

“Find masks and plug in,” he said.

“Our lead weapon is in terminal homing!” Gao said.

“Excellent,” Chan said. “Estimated distance to nearest incoming weapon?”

“Seven nautical miles. We will make it, sir, if we retain propulsion.”

The ocean grumbled and boomed.

“The corvette is no longer a problem,” Chan said.

“Shall we surface, sir?”

“Wait until we’ve cleared distance from the corvette. In case they have called for assistance, I want to be far away when we broach.”

“We no longer hear incoming active seekers,” Gao said.

“That’s encouraging but not definitive,” Chan said. “We will maintain flank speed for three more minutes.”

Chan waited with a patience that surprised him as the incoming weapon diminished into a ghost.

“Slow to three knots,” he said. “Listen for incoming weapons. Line up to snorkel and ventilate all compartments while charging batteries.”

The deck rolled into the balls of his feet.

“What’s next after ventilating, sir?” Gao asked. “Time with a mast exposed on the surface is time at risk.”

“Agreed,” Chan said. “We head toward the nearest friendly waters until I’m sure no hostile assets are tracking us. Chart a course for Qingdao.”

While the Romeo bobbed at shallow depth, Chan listened to the grumbling engines. The twin diesels sucked air through the induction mast, dragging it through the compartments en route to their intakes.

Chan squinted through his mask at the periscope optics but could see little. Gao appeared before him, reddened skin and sweat outlining his face where his mask had been.

“The air is clean, sir.”

Chan tore off his mask and glued his eye to the periscope. The dark horizon became discernible. He rotated in slow circles, unsure of what he hoped or expected.

His stomach sank and his heart raced. He saw a mast on the horizon, and a sick intuition suggested that it belonged to a South Korean destroyer.

CHAPTER 6

 

Air whipped Jake’s cheeks as the black void swallowed him. His lungs froze as his jumpmaster yanked at his flanks and dislodged him from their tandem connection. He tucked and rolled, finding relief in the softness of the dirt.

He pushed himself prone, steadying his world. His muscles knotted as the billowing parachute cast a translucent veil over the moonlit horizon. As the sprawling canvas jetted toward a cliff, its wires entangled the jumpmaster’s leg.

Jake rose and sprinted toward his companion, who dragged his free boot on the ground while slashing a knife at his damning cords.

Diving, Jake grabbed the man’s waist, rolled, and felt the thump of his helmet hitting a stone. He fought the anger of the gale to spare the man who had guided him through a high-altitude jump with a twenty-mile glide to a tiny rock in the East China Sea.

Through combat fatigues, dirt abraded his leg. As the landing zone’s edge approached, he prepared for a fateful decision to relinquish his partner to his death.

He fell back, and the world became silent. Panting, he rolled forward to see his freed companion reclining before him. Wind whipped the parachute up, fluttering it and pumping it like a jellyfish before driving it below the cliff and into the sea.

Jake helped his partner to his feet and served as a crutch to the limping soldier. After a few steps, separated by a language barrier, he reached an agreement with the man that reaching the lighthouse required a piggyback ride.

Adrenaline coursing through his muscular mass, Jake found his companion an ethereal load while trudging through the earth. He paused, reached under his passenger’s thigh, and tugged him higher up his back.

While walking, he mulled over the debate gnawing at him since leaving Michigan. He felt drawn to the allure of leading a frontline warship into combat, but part of him hoped to find a crew on the submarine competent enough to handle affairs without him.

When he reached the lighthouse, a bulb shone on a man in slacks and dress shirt who rendered Jake a smile.

“It has been a while,” Henri Lanier said.

“Henri, my friend,” Jake said.

Henri reminded him of a reserved version of Pierre Renard with an uptick in dignity and impeccable penchant for dress. The aging submarine mechanic kissed the air by Jake’s cheeks.

Repositioning the jumpmaster on his back, Jake lifted the oxygen mask at his chest.

“Where can I dump my gear?”

“In the lighthouse.”

“And my new friend?”

“Also in the lighthouse. There is no place else.”

Jake followed Henri into the circular structure and left his companion on a chair. A keeper approached, exchanged words in Mandarin and nods with the injured man, and gestured for Henri to join him.

The keeper and Henri slid a desk and kicked back a carpet. The Frenchman knelt and pulled open a trap door. He started down steep stairs cut into stone, and Jake followed his silvery hair into darkness.

Florescent lights revealed crude, jagged cuts into rock. Jake’s legs ached as he stooped.

“I imagine this resembles the tunnels the Koreans used under the demilitarized zone.”

Jake’s words echoed through the tunnel.

“Probably,” Henri said.

“Not meant for a man of my height,” Jake said.

“Nor mine. Pace yourself. It’s a long way to the submarine pen.”

Ten minutes later, Jake slouched sore shoulders and saw metal plates blocking the level ground ahead.

“What’s that?”

“They force a zigzagging path through the final meters to reach the pen,” Henri said. “To slow infiltrators.”

“Clever.”

“Thank the South Koreans,” Henri said.

“Installed in tunnels under the demilitarized zone?”

“In addition to sealing them with concrete, at least for the ones they know about.”

After wiggling through the plates, Jake watched Henri punch a code into a console by a steel door. The Frenchman shouldered the door open to a control room no bigger than Jake’s suburban living room.

Jake entered and latched the door behind him. Windows at the far wall revealed a cave hewn by nature, with fingers of stalactites, expanded and shaped by explosives.

Halogen lights bathed a concrete dock beside which rose a black conning tower. Jake recognized the Hai Ming as the Taiwanese version of the familiar Scorpène class. Nostalgia of past deeds rose within him, yielded to anxiety of uncertain dangers, and evaporated with Henri’s voice.

“We have a problem,” the Frenchman said.

“What is it?” Jake asked.

“From the looks of it, a drone. There’s a satellite photograph from the United States with a note from Pierre.”

Jake crouched while Henri pointed at the screen.

“This oblong object in the water,” Henri said. “It surfaced for several hours before sinking. It probably was intended to sink more rapidly but suffered a malfunction.”

“Looks like a torpedo, but torpedoes don’t surface, unless they’re exercise weapons. This thing’s got to be an acoustic drone.”

“Pierre agrees,” Henri said. “So do the American analysts.”

“It’s Chinese, right?” Jake asked.

Henri lifted a sheet with black text toward his nose. Jake watched his eyes scan Renard’s note.

“Pierre suspects that a Chinese submarine launched it and then abandoned it to its mission. It likely searched around the island on a repeated route for days, if not weeks.”

“They know we’re here,” Jake said. “Shit.”

“Not necessarily, he says. The Chinese at least suspect our presence within the island. However, their drone technology is inferior. The drone would have been challenged to hear one of our submarines.”

“I’m not sharing your optimism,” Jake said.

“This islet has always had a military presence. It may just be a precaution on the part of the Chinese.”

“And there’s been no sign of Chinese submarine activity around here?”

“Nothing.”

“They could have laid mines around the island, if they figured out we’re here.”

“There are no mines, Jake. Divers check the shallows frequently.”

“But not the steep drop off. You can’t check there for mines.”

Jake sensed himself panicking worse than he had while facing greater past perils. Henri stood straight.

“We have an acoustic array around the island.”

“That’s comforting,” Jake said. “I’m a little on edge.”

“I see. It’s unlike you.”

Jake thought of his wife.

“I have someone I want to go home to this time.”

“I know,” Henri said. “Pierre warned me.”

“Warned you?”

“Yes. You are trying to convince yourself that you would enjoy a quiet life. We have all tried it. Pierre, Antoine, Claude, myself. But it is folly. Once you taste the adventure, you cannot reject it.”

Jake tucked Henri’s musings into his memory’s recesses and sought a distraction to the Frenchman’s sharp philosophical insight.

“Why don’t we have a defensive minefield?”

“The Taiwanese could not lay one,” Henri said. “The act of laying would have risked suspicion of our presence, and the detonation of a mine would have confirmed it.”

“Forgive my pessimism,” Jake said. “That’s looking like the wrong decision.”

 

*

Jake followed Henri down a staircase to the chiseled ledge of rock serving as a wharf and marveled at the brutal elegance of the waterfront.

The Taiwanese had packed spare weapons, fuel tanks, and electronic cables into carved recesses. Fed by fuel and lubricant lines, a diesel generator whirred with air ducts running into the rock ceiling.

“How’d they get all this down here without the Chinese knowing?”

“The cutting took two years,” Henri said. “Once the rocks were carved, the concrete and wood arrived aboard submarines. So did any machinery too large to appear appropriate for the lighthouse and encampment.”

Jake looked again at the diesel.

“This is cannibalized.”

“Indeed,” Henri said. “Lifted from the last of the Guppy class submarines in the Taiwanese order of battle. So are the pipes and tanks.”

A tank raised in recessed shadows came into Jake’s view. Piping connected its underbelly to a centrifugal pump with a discharge line kinking into the water.

“What’s that?” he asked. “It’s big enough to be spare diesel fuel, but I question the pump and pipes heading into the water.”

“That’s the hydrazine,” Henri said. “Across the basin is the sodium azide.”

“I’m not following.”

“I see that Pierre did not explain the hydrazine line,” Henri said. “I designed the system for him, and we tested a prototype in the Azores. It’s a defense system of pumps, pipes, and chemicals. It shares structural supports with the hydrophone system.”

“So, on our egress route, just before the drop off to deep water,” Jake said, “you have an underwater piping system running at the edge of the shallows, carrying something called hydrazine.”

“Hydrazine and sodium azide, isolated from each other, of course. Only when activated will the compounds react.”

“React and blow up?”

“React and gasify,” Henri said. “Like an airbag, only there’s no airbag. Just the shallow water above. The piping has release valves and aeration holes running its length. The system creates an instant curtain of bubbles.”

Jake frowned.

“Countermeasures on steroids,” he said. “Either that or Alka-Seltzer for whales. Why?”

“It’s quite useful in many circumstances.”

Jake wanted to spin the idea of a bubble curtain throughout his imagination, but he considered it distracting.

“Looks to me like Pierre’s letting you play with science experiments,” he said. “Let’s see the ship.”

Jake’s boots tapped concrete as he trailed Henri onto the dock. An aluminum gangway echoed with his steps and carried him to the back of the black submarine where his soles gripped rough steel.

Orienting himself on the warship spurred his awareness. He realized that the ship pointed toward the cavern’s solitary, submerged exit.

“How’d they turn the ship around?” he asked.

Henri pointed toward the deep, dark end of the cave.

“There are capstans on the far wall,” he said. “It takes nearly half an hour of line handling, but it is a rather simple exercise to complete.”

“And a smart design to turn the ship around on the way in,” Jake said. “Allows for a quick exit.”

“Not too quick,” Henri said. “Lest you drive the submarine into the island. The exit is completely submerged and gives scant room for error. Fortunately, the ship’s formal captain, who will be your executive officer functionally, is an expert at piloting the egress.”

“I can’t wait to meet him.”

“Well then,” Henri said. “Turn around.”

Jake turned, and a diminutive man in a Taiwanese lieutenant commander’s uniform extended a hand. Jake shook it and noted pimples, thick glasses, and a goofy smile. The officer looked too young for his role.

“Jake,” Henri said, “allow me to introduce Lieutenant Commander Yangyi Jin, commanding officer of the Hai Ming.”

“Consider me your executive officer, Mister Slate” Jin said, “I will follow your lead. My command is a formality.”

“Sure,” Jake said. “That’s how it worked last time. If you don’t mind me asking, what’s your experience in hunting submarines?”

“I’m an expert with drone operations. I handled them in three successful anti-submarine missions.”

Jake digested the answer’s narrowness.

“Then you’re a specialist?”

“Yes.”

“Have you led an attack against surface vessels?”

“I have not led in combat. Those who have such experience are deployed on the Sea Tiger and Sea Dragon or perished on the Hai Lang. I am here to support basic submerged operations with the joint French and Taiwanese team and to handle the drones during combat.”

“Very well,” Jake said. “Let’s head below and brief the crew on the mission.”

Jin disappeared through the hatch, and Jake called to Henri in French to assure secrecy.

“Is he really the best they have?”

“He proved his competence in sea trials with me,” Henri said. “And his reputation precedes him in drone operations.”

“But no combat leadership.”

“The best perished on the Hai Lang. The remaining people with experience were shared on their other two submarines, which are searching for Chinese submarine pens. Jin was the only officer available with combat experience.”

“He looks twelve years old.”

“He was a lieutenant until promoted into this role,” Henri said. “Yes, he is young.”

“What about the rest?”

“Pierre recruited half a dozen young men from the French Navy. They are even better than the prior crop.”

“That’s good, but what about their Taiwanese counterparts?”

“A dozen good men,” Henri said. “Pierre and I observed them in training drills and sea trials. They are disciplined and bright, but they are untested in combat. They will need leadership.”

Jake stared down the hatch into the vessel and prepared to reenter the dangerous submerged universe.

Fate decreed that the Hai Ming was his to command.

 

CHAPTER 7

 

Jake beheld the Hai Ming’s operations room. Six dual-stacked French-designed Subtics system tactical monitors spanned the compartment’s left side. Before one panel sat sonar systems expert, Antoine Remy.

Short with a wide head and thick nose, Remy reminded Jake of a toad. He stood, shook his hand, and kissed the air beside his cheeks.

“I am happy that you decided to join us,” Remy said.

Jake considered claiming that Secretary Rickets had forced him, but he banished excuses to the other side of the steel shell encircling him.

“It’s good to see you, my old friend,” Jake said.

As Remy returned to his sonar system diagnostics, Jake noticed young Taiwanese sailors offering hopeful and uncertain stares. Jin made introductions and assurances of the competence of the ship’s native contingent. Jake found their English respectable and saw a healthy mix of bravado and fear in their eyes.

After handshakes, the men returned to their stations.

“They are rehearsing drills,” Jin said. “To assure proper response during important events.”

“Which one are they rehearsing now?”

“Emergency deep procedure.”

“Do you have an abandon ship procedure?”

“No.”

“Make one,” Jake said. “These are shallow waters, and the surface will always be attainable.”

Jin appeared frozen in indecision. Jake realized the young Taiwanese officer was processing his first command.

“Yes, Mister Slate,” Jin said.

“Call me ‘Jake’. It’s quicker communication.”

“Yes, Jake.”

“I will introduce myself to the rest of the crew while I tour the ship with Henri. Have an abandon ship procedure outlined when I get back. Include life rafts, provisions, communications equipment, and fire arms.”

“Yes, Jake.”

Jake nodded, turned, and ducked through the compartment’s aft door. He heard Henri’s rubber soles tap the deck plate behind him.

“It’s like déjà vu,” Jake said. “This ship feels like it rolled right off DCN’s construction dock.”

“It may as well have,” Henri said, “given the droves of French workers Pierre recruited to Keelung for its construction.”

Jake passed through the after battery compartment and after auxiliary machinery room, reaching the hull section that contained the air-independent ethanol and liquid oxygen MESMA plant. He looked upward at a high-pressure tank of compressed explosive gas. His fingers tapped cool, dormant piping as he moved by.

He ducked through another watertight door and underneath the wide air ducts leading to the quad diesels. He saw the main motor further aft, hidden intermittently by a man pointing to gauges on a control panel. Four sailors–two wearing Taiwanese uniforms, two Frenchmen in dungarees–stood behind their teacher, who smiled, embraced Jake, and kissed the air beside his cheeks.

Jake welcomed the presence of Claude LaFontaine, former engineer officer on the French nuclear-powered Rubis submarine and proven expert on diesel operations aboard Agosta and Scorpène class boats.

“Bonjour! Welcome, Jake.”

“Claude LaFontaine,” Jake said. “You haven’t changed a bit. Still wiry and fidgety.”

“Can’t eat enough to gain weight, even at my age. Let me introduce you to some of the engineering team.”

Jake shook hands with Taiwanese mechanics and young electricians pilfered from the French navy. One had a thick accent, but Jake judged the English skills sufficient.

“How is the propulsion system?” Jake asked.

“Just like you would expect from a European shipyard,” LaFontaine said. “Predictable. Reliable. Not a peep or hint of protest at depth, speed, or maneuvers.”

“The MESMA system?”

“Fine,” LaFontaine said. “I ran it hard during shakedown, but I didn’t push its endurance. I wanted to conserve fuel. We can’t refuel oxygen here. Only diesel.”

“You made a good choice, my old friend,” Jake said. “Have you exercised the battery through full cycling?”

“Of course. All within specifications.”

Held by Henri’s hands, an electronic tablet appeared, showing a summary page of systems tested during sea trials.

Jake waved his hand.

“Okay,” he said. “I studied the reports on the flight to Taiwan. If you guys tell me the ship is ready for sea, then it’s ready.”

“It’s ready, Jake,” LaFontaine said.

Jake watched Henri nod his agreement as he questioned if a submarine of French comrades in a strange land was supplanting a Michigan suburb as home.

 

*

Two hours later, French and Taiwanese sailors crammed around the control room’s central chart table. Jake slid a stylus across a chart.

“When the last patrol craft evades the minefield to the east, we turn north and clear the area.”

The faces surrounding him appeared to understand. Jake took comfort that his team learned fast, but he disliked their lack of experience. Nobody had the knowledge to second guess him. Henri knew nothing of combat tactics, and the art of dueling with another submarine remained unknown to Lieutenant Commander Jin.

“Take a fifteen-minute break,” Jake said. “Return here for a review of drills.”

“We have only two more hours of darkness,” Henri said. “It takes well over an hour to egress from this berthing.”

“We’re not leaving this morning,” Jake said. “We’ll wait until tonight. We have plenty of time.”

“I was allowing for contingencies.”

“Good thinking,” Jake said. “But I’m training for contingencies of a different sort.”

 

*

Three hours later, Jake’s adrenaline ebbed, and fatigue clouded his thoughts as he stifled a yawn.

“One more time,” he said. “Torpedo evasion!”

Jake glanced at the Frenchman at his control panel to the right of the central charting table.

“I ring up a head flank with cavitation to the engine room,” Henri said.

Jake angled his nose to the other side of the room.

“I warm up countermeasures to be launched on your mark,” Lin said

“I prepare a torpedo for a reactive launch, search depth equal to our own depth, range three thousand nautical yards,” a Taiwanese sailor seated beside Jin said.

“And I report the bearing to the incoming torpedo every fifteen seconds, whether you hear me or not,” Remy said from his sonar station.

The voices sounded tired and the faces looked worn, but Jake judged the team as ready as an ad hoc crew could be.

“Very well,” he said. “Everyone get some sleep. We’re getting underway in seven hours.”

 

*

Jake awoke with a coppery taste. The commanding officer’s wardroom felt confining as he crept to a steel basin to brush his teeth. He stripped and slipped into a shower, spurting water over himself. As the droplets landed against entombing metal, he felt trapped in an alien world he had forgotten.

After drying himself and donning loosefitting slacks and a cotton dress shirt, he ducked through the watertight door to the control room. He heard Henri’s soles slapping ladder rungs and saw the Frenchman stoop through a door.

“Topside is rigged for submerging,” Henri said. “The gangway is on the pier, and four lines remain to be cast off to get underway. Each line is mated to a capstan.”

“What’s next?”

“Divers swim to the capstans on the far wall,” Henri said. “There will also be line handling crews at the pier capstans. The line handling crews will pull us from the pier and orient us in the center of the basin.”

“Then how do we get rid of the lines?”

“Divers mount us to cast off the lines, and then they swim for the pier. We’ll receive word when they are clear so we may submerge. They await your command.”

Jake nodded and reached for a microphone above.

“Prepare to get underway,” he said. “Man the egress piloting team.”

Sailors filled the tiny room, and Henri moved beside Jake, who handed him a radio handset.

“Tell them to center us in the basin.”

Henri exchanged words with the command station.

“Line crews are maneuvering us,” Henri said. “It will take a good ten minutes to steady us.”

“How’s our trim going to be?”

“Very light,” Henri said. “We will submerge slowly, and there will be a slight down angle.”

“How many times have you done this before?”

“Me? Twice. Jin has been through it three times. It will be tight by design, but it will go smoothly.”

Jake stepped forward and placed his eye on the periscope optics. Under florescent illumination, a man in a wetsuit whipped a hand crank and coiled nylon rope around a capstan. He stopped and dropped his head below his shoulders, Jake assumed, as the submarine slid toward him.

The man looked up in response to a distant cue and recommenced his laboring with the crank. He released the handle, stood, and shook his arms.

“We are centered,” Henri said.

“Lowering the periscope,” Jake said.

He twisted a ring concentric to a glistening shaft and watched the periscope glide into the well at his feet.

“Lines are off,” Henri said. “We are underway and ready to conduct the egress.”

“Attention in the control room,” Jake said. “Henri has the conn. I have the deck.”

Taiwanese faces looked at him and frowned.

“That means Henri is driving but still taking orders from me,” Jake said.

Heads nodded.

“Submerge the ship and pilot us to open water.”

“Submerge the ship and pilot us, aye,” Henri said. “Open main ballast tank vents.”

Jin flipped switches, and Jake felt nothing while the creeping numbers of a depth gauge hinted at motion.

“Subtle,” he said.

“Indeed,” Henri said. “Each tank level and storage weight is known, be it fuel, sanitary matter, lubrication oil, food stores, or weapons. Even each person on board is accounted for in the neutral buoyancy equation.”

Jake waited and eyed Henri.

“We’ve steadied,” he said. “Looks to me like we’ve hit the bottom of the basin, huh?”

Henri glanced at the depth gauge and blushed.

“The basin floor is covered with a meter of silt in the event that the buoyancy calculation is… just slightly off,” Henri said. “I will get us off the bottom.”

Henri slid over the shoulders of a seated sailor and stood behind Jin. He pointed and orchestrated the movement of water through tanks, spurring a trim pump to life that caressed Jake’s ear with a distant whir. The ship tilted forward, rolling Jake to the balls of his feet.

Henri returned to his side and shrugged.

“I apologize.”

“No need,” Jake said. “I once drilled a Trident into the bottom of the Atlantic.”

“Nevertheless,” Henri said. “I will be more careful.”

“Take her to sea,” Jake said.

“Make turns for two knots,” Henri said.

Jake watched a speed gauge crawl through one knot. Henri returned to Jin’s shoulder and helped the Taiwanese officer caress the submarine down an underwater ramp. The speed readout indicated two knots.

“Leveling out,” Henri said.

Jake rebalanced his weight between his heels and toes.

“We are passing through the basin door,” Henri said. “The egress will be complete momentarily.”

Henri turned, hovered over the nautical chart, and lifted his head from between his shoulder blades.

“We are clear, Jake.”

“I have the deck and the conn,” Jake said. “Make turns for four knots. Maintain course.”

He stepped to the chart and stood opposite Henri.

“Expand the scale,” he said.

Henri lowered his arm and depressed a button. The islet became smaller, the world expanded, and the fathom curves tightened. The islet’s defensive sonar array wiggled into the field of view followed by the dark blue hue of deeper water.

“Give me a deduced reckoning,” Jake said.

Henri nodded and slid his finger to a second control. Timestamps glowed on hashes crossing the Hai Ming’s projected course.

“We can go deeper in twenty minutes at this pace,” Henri said. “Do you wish to accelerate?”

Jake shook his head, surprising himself with patience.

“Secure the piloting team and set underway watch team number one. Take over the control station from Jin.”

Jake stepped back to the elevated conning platform and sat on a foldout seat as bodies snake-danced before him. Ten minutes elapsed, and a new team settled in the room.

He dismissed Henri to explore the submarine for signs that a valve might have been left open, a duct misdirected, or a spoon misplaced. He trusted the veteran’s instincts to assure the ship’s readiness.

In a moment of quiet, he let himself think about returning home, another game-changing deed accomplished with inner peace as his reward.

“Jake!”

The interruption was a hoarse whisper. Antoine Remy, his eyes huge between the muffs of his sonar headset, had become a petrified toad.

“Antoine?” he asked.

“I think I heard launch transients.”

“You think?”

“I wasn’t listening for them. There’s something out there, bearing one-six-two.”

Jake flew to Remy’s shoulder and studied his screen. A discernible blip of noise rolled down the Subtics monitor.

“There,” Remy said.

Jake nudged the Taiwanese sailor beside Remy.

“Transmit three secure active bursts on that bearing.”

Three lines sought acoustic returns on a Subtics monitor. Three blips glowed three miles away on a bearing of one-six-two.

“Shit,” Jake said. “Warm up tube one. Three-mile range, bearing one-six-two. Target speed zero.”

“High-speed screws!” Remy said.

“Get a bearing rate.”

Remy clasped his muffs and squinted.

“Forward. It’s leading us, Jake. It’s a good shot!”

“Torpedo evasion!” Jake said. “Countermeasures now!”

The submarine shuddered, and compressed air popped as the hull expelled gaseous canisters. A voice Jake recognized through his adrenaline as that of Lieutenant Commander Jin made ready his retaliatory torpedo.

“Shoot tube one!” Jake said.

The rapid equalizing of pressure through the vented torpedo tube hurt Jake’s ears as an ejection pump thrust a slug of water cradling his weapon into the sea.

He remembered that returning fire disoriented an attacker who controlled his weapon via a command wire. Then he realized his attacker didn’t need a wire. Someone had surprised him and shot from point blank range.

His pulse racing, Jake accepted that his counter fire shot was spite against an enemy who had already won.

 

CHAPTER 8

 

Restraining his coiled power wore out Brody’s patience, and he banged his horns against his pen’s steel gate. If Defense Secretary Rickets wanted to straddle his broad shoulders and ride him to victory, he’d first have to prove he could hold on.

“Let me invade Taiwan,” he said.

“No,” Rickets said.

“You’re being weak,” Admiral John Brody said.

“You’re being irrational. America won’t tolerate the risk, and neither will I.”

Brody suppressed an urge to swear.

“You mean your political career won’t tolerate it,” he said. “You’re positioning yourself as a moderate conservative presidential candidate, the guy who can land a soft jab on China’s face but hold back the haymaker.”

“This isn’t about obliterating an enemy. We’re too intertwined with China economically. It’s about wielding measured power to strengthen a diplomatic outcome.”

“Damn it,” Brody said. “I can end this.”

“The conclusion is already known. Korea is backpedaling. Israel has taken the hit but will push back. Japan is just being harassed, and China won’t attack them. These were only distractions using diversion and puppets. All China cares about is Taiwan.”

“Then why are my forces elsewhere?” Brody asked.

“You have to address the other fronts,” Rickets said. “You need to keep the pressure on, the air sorties going, the counter-harassment games in the Sea of Japan. You are the demonstration of strength.”

Brody wanted his career to culminate in more than a demonstration.

“Then close the diplomatic deals on those fronts so I can redeploy to Taiwan,” he said. “I can win there.”

“It’s not about winning,” Rickets said. “It’s about American lives.”

“American lives are being lost now.”

“Not in the numbers they would be if you engage China. Losing pilots or a squad of marines is one thing. Losing hundreds of lives when a naval vessel is attacked is another, and that’s what’s going to happen if you take China on directly.”

“That’s what my warriors signed up for,” Brody said.

“America isn’t on board.”

“I’ve drawn up plans that minimize the risk. The commandant is ready to support with his marines. The time to attack is now, while China thinks they’ve got us spread thin elsewhere.”

“They do have us spread thin elsewhere,” Rickets said. “That’s why I’m letting the Taiwanese defend themselves.”

Brody checked himself. He questioned if he was letting an urge for personal glory cloud his judgment. He wondered if political ambition was driving him too hard to position himself as the Great American Conqueror.

“I might agree,” he said, “if you can convince me they can succeed.”

“The nukes will enable it.”

Brody sensed a new air of smugness. He glared at Rickets in a silent conversation of facial expressions.

“You gave them the nukes, didn’t you?” he asked.

Rickets glanced at the floor, smirked, and looked up.

“That’s an interesting theory. I admit I had plenty of opportunity to do so, but you probably already knew that.”

Brody sensed he had stumbled onto a truth that struck like an ice pick on steel before its shock receded into the acceptance of a warm bath–a truth both obvious and necessary in retrospect of the complexities that led him to the precipice of nuclear hostility.

Rickets had not just spent years moving nuclear fuel to Taiwan, enabling the island to fend for itself, but he had overseen its growth in strength.

Somehow, Brody thought, Rickets also controlled Taiwan through the subtle and murky machinations of a politician–through the fragile economics of favors traded, promises made, and expectations insinuated. And a Frenchman named Pierre Renard served as his governor of such arrangements.

Rickets’ wielding of power over a nation with a perfect delicateness intimidated Brody, and he struggled to hide his doubt.

“So the fact remains that they are armed and ready to strike,” Brody said. “There’s a conflict brewing that will change the shape of warfare forever.”

“That’s why I called you here,” Rickets said. “We’re getting ready for the minefield egress operation, and nukes will be used. I want an update. Renard is standing by.”

Rickets raised a remote from the arm of his chair, and the speakers bracketing the monitor chirped. A dark screen yielded to the sagging cheeks of the Frenchman Brody remained uncertain he could trust.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” Renard said.

“You look tired,” Rickets said.

“I shall rest soon. I have time set aside before the patrol craft make for sea.”

“When are they leaving?” Rickets asked.

“The operation is on schedule,” Renard said. “The first patrol craft will leave port at dawn.”

“Taiwan controls the airspace?” Rickets asked.

“The hold is tenuous but should last,” Renard said.

“Good.”

“Only eighteen patrol craft are available. One was lost on a reconnaissance mission, and another–the one in the greatest state of disrepair–was cannibalized to make the others seaworthy.”

“You estimate needing twelve craft to hold the line at the choke points?”

“Yes,” Renard said. “Four to the south to the Philippines and eight to the north along the Ryukyu Island chain. I expect losses in the minefield egress, but I predict fourteen to fifteen survivors.”

“That’s acceptable,” Rickets said.

“There are no further deviations,” Renard said. “You have the most updated operations schedule.”

“Admiral Brody,” Renard said.

Brody wiggled in his seat.

“Yes, I’m listening,” he said.

“The official nuclear exclusion zone remains unchanged,” Renard said. “But I can share with you the less restrictive zone where the Taiwanese truly intend to operate. You’ll want to assure that your assets are clear of the coordinates which I will send you immediately after our discussion is ended.”

An international criminal telling him where he could deploy the United States Navy pushed Brody over the edge.

“A maverick doesn’t tell the Chief of Naval Operations where he can deploy his forces.”

“He’s on our side, admiral,” Rickets said.

“No,” Brody said. “This smells wrong because it is wrong. You’re letting him dictate the outcome of a Sino-American war.”

“I’m letting him prevent a Sino-American war.”

Brody sighed and softened his tone.

“Something will go wrong. A nuke will land where it’s not supposed to, someone will get pissed, and someone will fire back harder.”

“I’m not risking American lives,” Rickets said.

“It’s a foregone conclusion. You can’t let Taiwan go nuclear and expect to contain it. You’re not controlling anything. You’re opening Pandora’s box.”

“No!”

“Let me invade!” Brody

“Gentlemen!” Renard said.

Brody looked to the monitor and saw the Frenchman cradling a cigarette beside his cheek.

“What?” Brody asked.

“The Taiwanese Minister of Defense has given the patrol craft authorization to use tactical nuclear weapons. The decision is made, the order is given, and it is not yours to rescind.”

“This is insanity,” Brody said.

“Limited theater escalation is sane,” Renard said. “This is a rational solution to a complex problem.”

“God help us all when this goes awry,” Brody said.

“We are all men of action,” Renard said. “We accept and manage the gravest of risks.”

“Don’t try to compare me to you,” Brody said.

He stood.

“Are we done here?” he asked.

“Yes,” Rickets said.

“Excuse me.”

Brody stormed out of the secretary’s office, reflecting if he should resign his post or give the order to invade Taiwan before Rickets could stop him.

 

CHAPTER 9

 

Jake braced himself against a metal rail as the deck heeled underneath him. Henri stood by his side during the turn.

“There’s no way they heard us,” Jake said.

“What?” Henri asked.

In past challenges, Jake’s comment would have been a catalyst for tactical interplay with Pierre Renard. Upon Henri’s ears, useless. He missed Renard.

“Nothing,” Jake said. “I’m trying to run behind the islet to shake the torpedo.”

“Shall I relieve Jin?” Henri asked.

“Yeah,” Jake said. “Jin, oversea the plot.”

The Taiwanese officer stood and slid to the table in the room’s center. Henri walked to the ship’s control station and sat.

A piercing and repeating beep pelted Jake’s head. He pointed to the active torpedo seeker alarm and yelled.

“Silence that damned thing!”

Jin twisted and reached over a Subtics monitor, and the beep subsided. He bent over the plot, absorbed the image, and looked up.

“Torpedo has passed our countermeasures,” he said. “Impact in three minutes.”

Jake turned his head toward a monitor framing a miniaturized rendition of the battle scene.

“Right,” he said. “We’re not getting away.”

“We are dead, then?” Jin asked.

The omen from his brother Nick sliced Jake’s mind.

“Prepare to abandon ship,” he said. “Everyone gets off in two minutes. That’s an order. No heroes.”

Jin reached into the overhead for a microphone and extended its coiled cord towards his chin. He passed word on the ship’s loudspeaker.

“Walk the ship and make sure everyone is getting off,” Jake said.

Jin darted by Jake on his way aft.

“Henri,” Jake said. “Prepare to surface.”

Henri’s eyes became black defiance.

“Use the hydrazine line,” he said.

Jake tapped his memory for the concept of Henri’s science project and found no tactical relevance.

“Trust me,” Henri said. “I designed it for this very purpose, primarily.”

“Torpedo defense?”

“Yes,” Henri said. “In the Azores, the prototype line defeated a torpedo.”

“No,” Jake said. “I can get us off this thing.”

“It will work, Jake. And you can still abandon ship if it doesn’t.”

Remy, earmuffs extending his wide head, announced that Jake’s avenging weapon had discovered its target. The news was fleeting nihilistic justice drowned in his rising curiosity in Henri’s invention.

“How do I use it?” he asked.

“Will you trust me to execute maneuver?” Henri asked as he stood. “For the sake of brevity.”

“Yes,” Jake said. “Attention in the control room. Henri has the conn. I retain the deck.”

Henri traversed the small room and stepped up to Jake, who leaned back to yield a line of sight between the Frenchman and the monitor. A Taiwanese sailor wearing a life vest moved towards Henri’s vacated station. Jake nodded and pointed, and the sailor sat.

“Right ten degrees rudder,” Henri said. “Steady course one-zero-five.”

The deck shifted as Jake glanced at the monitor. A sharp green glow traced the Hai Ming’s future path over the hydrazine line’s eastern edge.

Jin returned wearing a life jacket and bearing word that the crew was stationed for a blitz exit. Remy updated Jake with an estimate of two minutes to torpedo impact.

“We’ve got to be on the surface in one minute to evacuate if this doesn’t work,” Jake said.

“We are shallow,” Henri said.

“This has to work,” Jake said.

“It will.”

Seconds ticked through Jake’s mind like a dirge. The thought of growing old with his wife glowed within him, mortal terror coaxing the concept’s allure.

“All stop,” Henri said.

“You’re slowing?” Jake asked.

“To keep us near the activated section of the line.”

The surreal grip of illogic tensed Jake’s spine as he let a French mechanic retard his flight from a torpedo. His tactical intuition inverted, he sold out to Henri’s plan.

“Does this work if we’re surfaced?” he asked.

“Yes, of course,” Henri said. “I see your point. We will slow more quickly.”

Jake pointed to a seated Taiwanese sailor.

“Blow the main ballast tanks.”

The sailor rotated two nobs upward. High-pressure air roared through wide pipes, and the deck pressed against his heels. The submarine surfaced and rocked.

Jake watched a green crosshair icon glide over the charted position of Henri’s defense line. The Frenchman reached up and flipped a switch.

“Activating the hydrazine line,” Henri said.

“That’s it?” Jake asked.

“The fathometer is the system trigger.”

“Using the backup fathometer frequency?”

“I knew you’d never use it intentionally.”

Jake glanced to Remy and saw his toad-shaped head nod.

“He hears the gasses mixing,” Henri said. “The line is activated. It’s just a matter of seconds before the adequate pressure builds.”

“Now it either protects us, or it doesn’t,” Jake said.

“Any second now,” Henri said.

“Just in case…”

Jake reached for the microphone above, detached it, and moved it to his lips.

“All hands abandon ship. No life rafts. There’s no time and no need. Get off the ship!”

“I’m staying,” Henri said.

“Very well,” Jake said. “Jin, lead the crew off.”

“I will stay,” Jin said.

“No,” Jake said. “The men need a leader. Jump first so they follow you in.”

The room expelled all inhabitants except for Jake and the Frenchmen. Before Jake could expel the sonar expert, thunder rumbled through his steel shell world, and a swath of acoustic fuzz etched itself on a monitor.

“Hydrazine and sodium azide are mixing,” Henri said.

“So we just wait and drift?”

“Yes,” Henri said. “The torpedo should perish in the disruption above the line.”

Jake turned his chin toward Remy.

“Do you hear anything?”

“A lot of hissing,” Remy said. “But no torpedo.”

Jake waited for the torpedo to reappear and end his life. Beside him, Henri appeared mesmerized in thoughts hewn between life and death. Jake remembered that talking helped deal with the slow moments of terror where fate unfolded its unavoidable mortal verdict.

“Henri?”

No response.

“Henri?”

The Frenchman turned his head and said nothing.

“How long does the hydrazine last?” Jake asked.

“As long as we need,” Henri said.

He started to taper off. Jake engaged his companion’s mind to keep it responsive.

“How long is that, Henri? Using the pumping system you designed, how long does the system work?”

“Only a subset of valves open near the location where we crossed. It optimizes the gaseous distribution that way. We have at least three minutes.”

“What happens to the torpedo?”

“It accelerates to penetrate through the noise, descends violently in the bubble curtain, and hopefully sustains damage to its sensors and guidance electronics as it hits the wall of water on the far end.”

“Hopefully?”

“Probably. If not, the torpedo may be set wildly off course. In these shallow waters, it may also take on such a steep angle as to collide with the sea bottom.”

Jake grunted.

“Remy, anything?”

“No, Jake. Just hissing.”

“Would you hear an active seeker?”

“Yes, I think so. There’s nothing.”

Jake returned his attention to Henri.

“Can you turn the line off?” he asked.

“Five active pings in rapid succession will tell the operators in the pen to secure the pumps,” Henri said. “They will hear it on the sonar arrays and recognize our sonar system.”

Jake walked to the abandoned station beside Remy, tapped keys, and ordered the ship to render the sonar pings. As he returned to the chart, the crackling stopped, and he held his breath.

A phantom hiss toyed with his ears, and he knew that Remy strained through a similar auditory hallucination to discern the sea’s true noises.

“Anything now?”

“Yes, Jake!” Remy said. “High-speed screws!”

“Damn it! Bearing rate?”

“Not changing.”

Jake’s heart sank, and he wondered if he could get off the Hai Ming in time.

“Wait, Jake. I hear Doppler shifting on the blades.”

“It’s turning?”

“Yes! In a tight circle.”

Jake held his breath and waited for Remy to ratify his hopes. The Frenchman obliged with a howl.

“Incoming torpedo has shut down!”

“Keep listening for other weapons,” Jake said.

“All I hear is ours, Jake,” Remy said. “And it’s about to impact!”

 

The control room boomed. Startled, Jake steadied himself with white knuckles on a polished rail. Sonic static sizzled, echoed, and tapered to silence.

“We just killed whoever shot at us,” Remy said.

“I figured,” Jake said. “What about incoming weapons?”

Remy pressed his muffs into his head.

“There’s nothing Jake. We made it.”

Jake clasped both hands on a polished rail, exhaled, and sagged his head between his shoulders. He felt Henri’s hand pat his back. He straightened and grabbed the beaming Frenchman’s shoulders.

“Holy shit, Henri. You did it!”

“The hydrazine line must have damaged the incoming torpedo and made it circle until it shut itself down on anti-circular run protection.”

“Amazing, mon ami,” Jake said.

“The crew?” Henri asked.

“Crap,” Jake said. “I suppose it’s too late to tell them not to jump.”

“Indeed. We need to pick them up with haste.”

A voice crackled from a loudspeaker.

“I will slow the ship.”

Jake reached for a microphone and responded.

“Claude? I ordered you to abandon ship.”

“I know,” LaFontaine said. “But I assumed you needed control of your propulsion plant.”

“You’re a fool,” Jake said.

“I was listening. I was ready to jump if you did.”

“Give me a backing bell,” Jake said. “We need to get the crew back on board and get the hell out of here.”

 

CHAPTER 10

 

Translucent tracing paper crinkled as Lieutenant Commander Chan yawned and pressed his forearms on a table.

“How long has it been?” he asked.

The younger man with a rugged jaw turned his sharp nose towards a digital clock.

“Twenty minutes, sir,” Lieutenant Huang Gao said.

Chan’s eyes compared the penciled path his stolen submarine had taken against that of the South Korean destroyer that had followed him to the Chinese coast.

“They’re still out there.”

“Carbon dioxide is high,” Gao said. “The soda lime beds can’t clear it fast enough. We must snorkel.”

“No,” Chan said. “I suspect the diesel engines on this accursed submarine are too loud. We must be patient.”

“The stench of the bodies. It’s becoming unbearable.”

Chan glanced to the deck at corpses stacked between electronic cabinets. He acknowledged the rising odor of rotting meat.

“We are near the kelp bed if we must hide,” he said.

“You mean to snorkel, then, sir?”

“No. The risk is too great. We will instead run fans. Prepare to ventilate.”

As Gao turned to execute the order, Chan stopped him.

“One more thing,” he said. “Get a weapon ready with the tightest search parameters you can set. If I fire, I don’t want to hit a friendly vessel.”

Chan stepped back to the periscope well and flung a hydraulic control ring. A valve clanked, and a silvery cylinder rose. He unfolded two handles, pressed his orbital socket to the optics, and saw watery darkness.

“The ship is lined up to ventilate, sir,” Gao said.

“Ascend to snorkel depth,” Chan said.

The world remained dark as he walked the periscope in a circle. As his eyes adjusted, stars twinkled.

“Raytheon long-range radar, sir,” Gao said. “Intermittent, low signal strength.”

“I knew they were still out there,” Chan said. “But they are fortunately distant. Raise the induction mast.”

Hydraulic servo valves clunked while porting fluid to an actuator. As his vision steadied, Chan spied the green running light of a freighter steaming behind him.

“Induction mast raised,” Gao said.

“Ventilate,” Chan said.

A fan whirred and breathed clean air into the hijacked North Korean vessel. Chan smelled the sea as he correlated two more ships in the transit lane against memorized bearings to sounds heard by the submarine’s old but functional sonar system.

“Consider snorkeling now, sir?”

“No, Gao.”

“Battery is at thirty percent,” Gao said. “Ventilating with the fan is slow. Using the diesels would quicken our air purification.”

“They’ve proven they can hear us,” Chan said. “We would already be rid of that destroyer if this submarine weren’t so damned loud.”

“They may have been tracking us with active sonar.”

Knowing the South Korean destroyer would be running dark without running lights, Chan twisted the periscope handle to allow high-power optics and identify a silhouette on the horizon. His eye followed the edge of a tanker’s fantail and saw its white aft running light that had masqueraded as a star in low magnification.

“No, Gao,” he said. “If they had achieved active return, they would have already prosecuted us. They have had only bearings to our noise, which is frustratingly high when making any speed on this worn down machine. They hear us intermittently, which is why they’ve been able to follow us loosely but not engage us with weaponry.”

“Thales targeting radar!” Gao said. “High signal strength!”

“Damn!” Chan said. “Cease ventilating. Lower the induction mast.”

Chan flung the ring around the periscope and stepped back from the silvery metal slithering into its well.

“Increase speed to five knots,” he said. “Dive to thirty meters.”

Chan stepped to the chart and watched a mechanical plotter walk an incandescent crosshair toward a kelp bed. He noted the shallow water depth and recalculated.

“Make your depth twenty-seven meters,” he said.

The steel plates below his rubber soles leveled as the submarine settled meters from the seafloor.

“All stop,” he said.

“We’re entering the kelp bed, sir,” Gao said.

“Agreed. We should slow right within it. It’s fortunate that we made it to our home waters. The Koreans don’t even know it’s here.”

Chan looked to a speed indicator that told him the ship crawled below a knot through a tall undersea forest.

“Rig the ship for ultra-quiet. Walk the spaces to verify that every nonessential man is in bed and all equipment is off.”

Chan eroded time by walking behind the small team of seated technicians, staring over shoulders at sonar displays and tactical plotting data. Something gnawed at him that he couldn’t elucidate.

Gao returned to the control room, and Chan joined him at the central plotting table.

“No sonar activity from the destroyer, sir?”

“No,” Chan said. “None. Either they didn’t get a radar return from our masts, or they are changing their tactics.”

“They must have had a return at that signal strength.”

A cloud formed in Chan’s mind.

“Rig for depth charge,” he said. “They’ve deployed their helicopter.”

Gao darted away, and a sonar operator called out that he heard chopping blades whipping the water. A loud splash then preceded the acoustic ping of a dipping sonar. Horrified faces looked at Chan.

“Be calm,” he said. “The kelp will hide us.”

Chan held his breath and thought he heard the South Korean helicopter’s sonar with his naked ear. The sonic banging stopped, and Gao returned to his side.

“Helicopter,” Chan said.

“Should we run?”

“No,” Chan said. “We do exactly nothing.”

Animated, the sonar operator warned of louder rotor sounds and a second immersion of the dipping sonar. Enemy hydrophones pushed sound through steel and into Chan’s ears. Bodies tensed in his view.

“Trust the kelp,” he said.

The sonic emanations rang three times and ceased. Chan glanced at the sonar operator who stated that all signs of the helicopter had vanished.

“I think we made it, sir.”

“Keep awareness for that helicopter’s next search.”

“The current will push us from the kelp in approximately ten minutes,” Gao said.

“Then we wait ten minutes,” Chan said. “If we hear nothing, we evade to the south.”

“We must charge our battery before daylight, sir.”

“We will.”

Chan pressed his forearms against trace paper and watched the incandescent crosshair slide to the charted edge of kelp. Other than a shrimp bed and passing merchant shipping, the water was silent.

“Helm,” he said, “all ahead one third. Make turns for three knots.”

As an hour passed, Chan labored against his tight chest to breathe, but the waters carried no acoustic threats. Gao returned from the engineering spaces, his face ghastly in the red light.

“We must snorkel, sir. Cells will invert soon.”

“Agreed,” Chan said. “We must take our chances.”

Chan took the submarine shallow and viewed the night. The red and green running lights of merchant ships dotted the lanes to the east, and the electromagnetic sensor atop his periscope sniffed commercial radars.

“Raise the induction mast,” he said.

A hydraulic servo valve clicked, and rising steel rumbled in the tower above him. A sailor announced that the head valve had opened, and Chan ordered the diesels to life. The rhythmic clacking of their cylinders echoed, and Chan tasted the fresh sea air passing through the compartment en route to the hungry beasts.

“Raise the radio mast,” he said.

A third mast rose above Chan, multiplying his vulnerability to searching radar waves.

“Message traffic!” Gao said.

“Can you read it?”

“It’s encrypted, sir. I’ll have to download it to a jump drive for the laptop and run it through decryption.”

“Bring the laptop here,” Chan said.

Chan heard the rustling of a dispatched sailor. As he felt the man brush by him, another called out a warning of a naval search radar.

“Lower the radio mast!” Chan said. “Identify the radar system!”

“It’s ours, sir,” Gao said. “Probable Hainan class submarine hunter patrol vessel. There are several stationed in Qingdao.”

Chan played hope against horror in his heart, wondering if his homeland helped or hunted him.

“Secure snorkeling,” he said. “Lower the induction mast.”

The diesel clacking quieted and the gentle reverberation of sliding metal rose and fell in the conning tower above. He kept his eye to the optics and scanned the horizon for the Chinese warship that he hoped recognized him as an ally.

“Tamir high-frequency sonar!” Gao said. “Why would the fleet search for us?”

“Note their signal-to-noise ratio and bearing.”

“Their bearing is toward the kelp bed,” Gao said. “The signal-to-noise ratio is appropriate for them searching at the range of the kelp bed. They’re hunting for us.”

“Be calm,” Chan said. “Lowering the periscope.”

He stepped back from the slithering cylinder and saw earnest faces.

“Any progress on the decryption?” he asked.

Gao bent over the shoulder of a man balancing a laptop on his knee. The sailor ran his finger over the screen, looked up, and smiled.

“The message from the fleet says that the South Koreans have left. The Hainan vessel is pretending to prosecute us with helicopter support and will employ depth charges at the kelp bed. The fleet will tell the Koreans we are destroyed. Our orders are to proceed undetected to the submarine base at Qingdao.”

Relief spread through the room as Chan pressed his palms on the tracing paper, exhaled, and slumped his head between his shoulders.

Blind to his fate, he ordered the submarine west with ambitions of earning praise for delivering the mighty gift of a North Korean submarine to his country.

 

CHAPTER 11

 

Chan cringed as the ocean roared the thunderous rage of depth charges. Overlapping bursts curled his shoulders and squeezed air through his clenched teeth.

The final echo subsided, and, in his deafness, the odor of dirt specs lodged in inaccessible recesses rose through the familiar scent of rotting flesh and betrayed the submarine’s age. Rubbing his ears, he looked across the plotting table.

“I pray that’s the end of it,” he said. “Pay attention for the sonar signaling frequency.”

He watched Gao’s lips move but heard a muffled drone. Barking, he repeated himself. Gao nodded and turned to a pair of sailors seated at sonar screens wearing earmuff headsets. His neck strained to vocalize audible words.

“We are listening,” he said. “At these near distances, the signal will be obvious on the screen.”

“Remind me of the frequency, Gao?”

Gao stiffened in defiance of the quiz.

“We are ordered to remain submerged and undetected with all masts and antennae unexposed until we hear the Hainan class patrol vessel shift its Tamir sonar to its maximum thirty-kilohertz signal.”

“And then what?” Chan asked.

Gao looked down.

“I am uncertain.”

Chan had expected better from the eldest son of a ranking party official. Unlike himself, Gao had enjoyed privileges in education, guidance, and health. Chan checked his contempt and redoubled his effort to build his executive officer’s confidence.

He waved his palm.

“Don’t let the noise distract you,” he said. “Review the orders and refresh your memory. We will discuss our next steps when you are ready.”

Chan turned and lumbered by the periscope. He reached for a foldout chair mounted on the after bulkhead, angled his buttocks toward its foamed seat, and slumped his weight onto its back. Expecting uneventful submerged drifting with his propeller stopped, he propped his elbow atop a semi-recessed metallic book cabinet and plopped his cheek against his palm.

The awkward posture surprised him with its comfort. His eyelids drooped, and his fatigue billowed. Squinting, he saw Gao with a renewed vigilance hovering over sailors, and he trusted his executive officer to remain alert. He allowed himself a nap.

He dreamt.

 

The adolescent Dao Chan slowed to gather his energy and allow the small lagging hand to reattach itself to his hip. Celebrating Lunar New Year, he picked the position in the game where he would chase the quickest child in the village, an older and faster boy.

Having reached the head of the dragon, Chan sought to catch that older child at its tail. He feigned fatigue, staring at his bare feet while monitoring his prey from his eye’s corner. The elder boy’s smile revealed the brash smugness of assumed invincibility.

His toes churning soft ground, Chan accelerated towards a target that frowned, bowed its head, and drove forward the smaller child in front of him. Chan lunged, but the boy whipped his hips aside. Stumbling, he recovered and let the lethargy of the dozen-child dragon spine slow his prey and create his second chance.

He leapt and tackled the boy. Violating understood game rules, he drove his shoulder into the boy’s thigh. Numbness consumed his arm, and searing pain shot through his shoulder.

The world became white silence, and Chan awoke as the leg underneath his chest kicked free and scraped his neck. A cool puddle wetted his cheek, and the splattered mud on his tongue tasted fertile. A breeze carried a cooking fire’s scent of burning wood across his face, and a stark epiphany struck him as he knelt and rubbed his aching arm.

Earth, water, wind, and fire. The foundational elements of life dictated his universe. Simple truths accepted, unquestioned, and even worshipped. He respected them, but his spirit craved more than plowing fields and growing wheat on his family’s tiny farm.

Time slipped, and he stood before his smiling parents. For his mother, a woman with intelligence, a sharp tongue, and resentment for all life, the smile was an admission of defeat that someone else was entitled to happiness. For his father, a husky but downtrodden farmer, the smile was a plea for validation. Chan feared they had news that he would be obliged to appreciate.

“You’ve done well in your studies,” his father said. “You’ve been chosen to have your high school tuition paid by a donation from a businessman who left our village long ago. We are very proud of you.”

His subconscious mind embellished his memory, and his mother morphed into a dragon. She swallowed his father whole, and the beast spoke to Chan with his parents’ synthesized gruesome voice.

“You should feel privileged. We never had such opportunities. If you earn your way to a university and to work in the city, you must send money to the village. We own you now by virtue of guilt. Why should you have advantages when the community does not? You have no right to succeed. You have no right to fail.”

A sword appeared in Chan’s hand, and he swung at the monster’s belly. The blade tore through scales, and acid flowed from the wound, dissolving metal. Chan dropped the weapon and ran.

He turned his back to his parents, his siblings, his cousins, and the village. He ran to the east, toward the cities, seeking identity through survival.

Survival meant finding an alien world as far from a farming village as he could find, learning its foundational rules, and mastering them. Images of warships of the People’s Liberation Army Navy danced through his sleeping memory, and his younger self knew that he would become an expert in naval warfare, if he were to exist at all.

 

A familiar voice returned his awareness to the hijacked North Korean Romeo class submarine.

“The sonar signal, sir,” Gao said. “The patrol craft is ordering us to snorkel depth.”

Chan suppressed a yawn.

“Take us up,” he said.

“It’s dusk, sir,” Gao said. “May I rig the room for red light? My eyes need to adjust.”

“Rig the room for red light but don’t hesitate. There’s little of importance for you to see up there.”

White bulbs faded, and a crimson glow turned gray metal black. Chan stayed seated and slanted his knees from the circumference Gao’s trousers etched around the periscope. A sailor tore paper from a teletype printer and brought it to Chan. He dismissed the sailor and glanced at the curt instructions.

“Snorkel, Gao,” he said. “Ventilate the ship, charge the batteries, and increase speed to five knots.”

“Those are welcomed orders, sir.”

“The Koreans are gone,” Chan said. “And the patrol craft will escort us with safe passage to Qingdao.

 

*

Chan swiveled the periscope toward the rear of his submarine. Twisting the optics skyward, he watched the twinkling sky yield to fluorescent lights of the covered submarine pen.

“Are you lined up, Gao?”

“Lined up, sir.”

“Very well,” Chan said. “Surface the ship.”

A low-pressure fan grumbled and blew air into the submarine’s ballast tanks, and a depth indicator signaled the indiscernible rise.

“Shore support has just sent a message of tug boat assistance for our berthing,” Gao said. “They’ve requested that line handlers report topside once we are surfaced.”

“Very well,” Chan said. “All stop, secure the engine room, and send line handlers topside.”

 

*

Chan smelled diesel fuel and brackish water as he walked across the steel girder to the concrete pier. He saluted his squadron commodore, a pudgy man with beady eyes. He ignored the lackeys flanking his former boss.

The commodore hesitated and returned the salute. He talked through his nose.

“I had half expected to never see you again, Chan.”

Chan thought the voice betrayed a mix of envy and pity.

“I’m here, sir. Do you know my orders from Beijing?”

“Of course not. You know I’m not privy to this pet project from headquarters. I answer to the North Sea Fleet Command and carry out meaningful operations with the rest of the ships in my squadron.”

“I’ve just added one ship to the order of battle,” Chan said. “I consider that meaningful.”

“A gift offered by a traitor. The least capable crew in my squadron could have achieved as much. This is the only way you would have achieved command, such as it is.”

Chan suppressed a smile. Risking command of the stolen Romeo became his only way to earn command after his commodore had proclaimed that a farmer’s son would never lead a submarine in the North Sea Fleet.

“I sank a South Korean warship,” Chan said. “To my knowledge, that makes me our only countryman to have done so.”

“A North Korean crew that can barely stay submerged managed the same feat years ago. Hardly brag worthy. And you couldn’t escape an inferior destroyer without assistance.”

The veins in Chan’s neck throbbed, but he remained silent.

“Very well,” the commodore said. “Here are your orders.”

He nodded to an assistant who extended a sealed envelope. Unwilling to give his commodore the satisfaction of a reaction, Chan tucked it into his pocket.

“You have your orders,” the commodore said. “And I have mine, which I will follow despite their absurdity. I’ve prepared the mess hall with a dinner for your entire crew. Alcohol is permitted, but no man may leave the waterfront. It is secured until you depart.”

“And when is that, sir?”

Chan allowed himself petty delight in seeing the commodore’s brow furrow.

“I assume your orders will say. I am obliged to give you top priority of all waterfront facilities until then.”

“The irony, sir,” Chan said, “is that you would deny a man of my abilities command in your squadron. But now that I report directly to fleet headquarters, I have a submarine of my own, full use of your facilities, and no requirement to do a damned thing you say.”

“You will regret those words if you return from whatever mission you’re undertaking.”

Chan snorted.

“If I return, sir, I expect that I will do so in a body bag before I would risk reporting to you again. My crew?”

“The mess hall is ready,” the commodore said. “You may send your entire crew there now. In fact, I recommend that you do. None of them want to see what’s about to happen on that rusting relic of a submarine.”

Chan returned to his Romeo and had Gao take the crew to the catered dinner. As the ship emptied and assumed an eerie silence, he walked into his stateroom.

He unfolded his desk and placed his buttocks on the leather cushion of his four-legged chair. Tearing open the envelope, he cut his finger and cursed.

The orders included a brief congratulations and an allowance to rest a day in port before taking station in the risky waters east of the Japanese Ryukyu Islands. No changes. No updates. No clarity on a target.

He picked up a wired phone handset and called the waterfront’s operator.

“The mess hall, please,” he said. “Any officer. This is their captain.”

He heard the young and eager voice of a junior officer.

“Captain?”

“Tell Gao that tomorrow is a ship’s holiday and that every man may indulge in food and drink tonight.”

After the officer acknowledged the order, Chan left his stateroom to join his crew at dinner. He heard footsteps on ladder rungs, and a young uniformed officer greeted him.

“I’m doctor Lin,” he said.

“You’re here for the bodies?” Chan asked.

“Indeed. I’ll store half of them in the torpedo room, half in the engineering spaces. Overflow will go wherever they fit. You’ve cleared room to stack them?”

“Yes. How long do you need?”

“My team is large. Three hours. This will be quick.”

“Do you mind if I watch?” Chan asked.

“Of course not. But I assure you, you will be bored after watching the first body.”

Chan sat in his foldout chair behind the periscope and watched men in lab coats and operating masks enter his ship with body bags. The first pair dragged a Korean corpse from the gap between two electric cabinets and rolled it onto the deck plates.

The body had a greenish blue hue, and its face seemed inhuman. The rotting scent of meat became pungent and repulsive again to Chan as he watched the men wrestle the body’s Rigor Mortis. Straightening the limbs, the men slid a body bag over the shoes and wiggled it up the dead man’s length. Once the plastic consumed the head, they zipped the bag closed.

Chan knew more was coming.

One man plugged an iron into an outlet while the other folded a plastic lip over the zipper. With impressive efficiency, one man ironed while the other walked plastic along the bag’s length.

“That’s a watertight seal?” Chan asked.

“Plastic welding,” one man said. “Good to an atmosphere and a half. It’s plenty, but we’re leaving a few extra bags in case of leaks.”

The other man moved to the ladder and waved his arm. A hose slithered down, and he pulled it down the ladder deeper into the control room. Satisfied with his slack, he returned to the bag and snapped the nozzle into a valve Chan had not noticed.

The man squeezed a handle, cocked his head to listen, and stopped. Then he grabbed with both hands and let the fluid flow. A minute later, the bag swelled.

“Formaldehyde?” Chan asked.

“Better,” the man said. “But conceptually the same. The decay will cease, and the bodies will be at your disposal for whatever purpose. And despite what I might imagine, I have no desire to know what your purpose is.”

Chan only half-knew his purpose, but he assured himself it was worthy.

 

CHAPTER 12

 

Jake Slate propped open the hatch, grabbed a railing, and hoisted himself atop the Hai Ming’s conning tower sail. Disgusted and careless, he staggered in the shallow water swells and cursed as he braced himself against flat steel.

Sliding his hand into his parka, he groped for his waterproof global satellite phone. He withdrew it, tapped a button, and pressed it against his cheek.

As he awaited a response, he scanned the horizon and saw a solitary unnatural light in the moonlit darkness. Its radiance rose and fell with the rhythmic rotation of a navigation aid, and he recognized it as a navigation beacon on Yonaguni Island, the Japanese landmass closest to Taiwan.

His heart hit his throat at the sound of his wife’s voice. She sounded elated.

“Hi, honey,” Linda said.

He tried to feign coolness but knew he sounded giddy.

“Hey, honey,” he said. “It’s morning there, right?”

“Yeah. I miss you. Come home.”

“Who’s with you?”

“Your brother’s been staying at the house,” she said. “He’s out getting coffee now. He’s been great. The kids are with my mom tonight.”

Jake credited what little calmness he discerned in his wife’s voice to Nick. Despite his augury weirdness, his brother embodied compassion.

“No, I mean who else is there?” he asked.

“There’s always a guy in a suit in the house. They work in shifts and they’re supposedly here to protect me. They try to act polite, but they’re creepy.”

“They’re not protecting you,” he said. “They’re policing you. They’re listening to us talk, and they’ll cut off this conversation if they don’t like what we say.”

“I hate this. I just want you to come home.”

Priorities and loyalties became muddled in Jake’s gut. Although accompanied by friends, twisted fate stranded him on an alien submarine fighting someone else’s war.

“I can’t,” he said.

“I pray for you to come home every day. I want God to answer my prayers.”

Nick’s omen played in Jake’s mind.

“He will. At least I think so. I don’t know. I mean, nothing’s certain.”

“You say that Pierre has always said you’re charmed. I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. I’m scared.”

“Pierre says a lot of things.”

“I don’t like him.”

“You don’t know him like I do,” Jake said. “He saved my life. Granted what we did long ago was stupid, but I needed revenge, and he gave it to me.”

“You talk like he rescued you.”

“He did. I needed him.”

“Yeah, well he needed you, too.”

Jake squinted at the beacon and wondered if Renard needed him now. In his French friend’s operation, he saw himself as a checker piece on a chessboard.

“Okay,” he said. “I see your point.”

“I’ve lost too much in my life,” Linda said. “I can’t lose you. I need you.”

“I have something I need to do now.”

“No! Don’t go!”

“I’ll call you back. I promise.”

His eyes adjusted to the night, Jake made out the silhouette of the tiny island’s sparse shoreline. He had set the submarine drifting as close to the shoals as he dared, and the beach seemed touchable.

He called Renard.

The Frenchman sounded fatigued, and, for the first time in Jake’s reckoning, old.

“Mon ami,” Renard said.

“You don’t sound happy to hear from me,” Jake said.

“Surprised. Cautious. I question why you are using your phone instead of the radio.”

“It’s encrypted, right?”

“Of course, but that is not my concern. It’s your ability to use it. Where are you?”

“Japanese waters. Yonaguni Island. Right where I should be per plan. But I’m surfaced.”

“Obviously, but dear God, man,” Renard said. “Why?”

“I needed to talk to Linda.”

“Call me a romantic, but I long for the days of wooden ships when men had no choice but to avoid such frivolous distractions.”

“My wife needs me.”

“Is there a crisis?”

Jake found Renard’s question unsurprising but disliked the mistrustful strain in the Frenchman’s voice.

“No,” he said. “She just needs me.”

“My wife needs me too. I understand that. But we picked strong women who accepted us for who we are.”

“It’s not your ass out here at risk,” Jake said.

“Where’s your courage, man? Where’s your confidence? You’re the best there’s ever been.”

“I just got my ass kicked, I barely survived an ambush, and I’d be dead right now along with the rest of the gang if it weren’t for Henri.”

“I’ve read your report. You made the right decision using the hydrazine line.”

“Henri saved us. I’m supposed to be your genius protégé, but your mechanic saved us. I screwed up, and I can’t figure out how. Something’s wrong in this scenario.”

“That was my fault. I unwittingly set you up for an ambush, but I also left you a defense as a mitigation. Give yourself credit for being smart enough to use it, even if Henri had to cajole you.”

Jake remembered a pattern of hesitating in his past commitments to Renard. The Frenchman had always promised excitement, adventure, and purpose, and he had always delivered. But this operation torqued his guts.

Without warning, the answer hit Jake like a stomach punch. He was overkill in this one. Renard didn’t need him.

The Frenchman had spent years advising the Taiwanese and had enjoyed the luxury of time and foresight to do what he did best–arm a nation per his plan. Jake digested the enormity of Renard’s preparation. He had driven Taiwan to build the Hai Ming, to lay defensive hydrophones, and to equip its vessels for tactical nuclear combat.

“Pierre,” Jake said. “You have this operation planned out like you never have before, at least not since I’ve known you.”

“Perhaps. Yes, I’ve invested a good deal of time into this. It promises to be my most important accomplishment.”

“Right. Your accomplishment. Not mine. This is your show, and you don’t get me for free this time.”

“I always pay you well, and I will for this operation. I know you trust me to make it worth your effort.”

“That’s not what I meant. For you and me, money hardly matters. I mean this time I have a home. I have something to lose. There’s someone back there who loves me.”

Jake noted a silence unlike any he’d shared with Renard. The Frenchman seemed struggling for words.

“Pierre? You still there?”

“Damn it, man,” Renard said. “I love you.”

“What?”

He heard Renard pause and sigh.

“I snapped as I said it, but I meant it,” Renard said. “You are a son to me.”

“You’ve run out of threats and prizes,” Jake said. “Are you resorting to my softer emotions to manipulate me?”

“No, I think not.”

“Then what the hell, Pierre? If you love me, why wait until now to tell me?”

“Because I’m proving it by letting you go.”

Jake glanced at the beacon to assure himself the shoreline’s proximity remained real.

“Really?” he asked. “You have a change of heart all of a sudden? On the doorstep of a battle?”

“I admit it to myself only now,” Renard said. “I planned this operation to succeed without you. It wasn’t until events unfolded and this became a reality that I felt compelled to garner your involvement. But in retrospect, I see it clearly. I’m only using you as an insurance policy.”

Tension washed from Jake’s body.

“Yeah,” he said. “I get it now. That’s what was bothering me. Maybe I wanted you to need me, but you really don’t.”

“And I’m sure this tastes bitter to you as it does now to me,” Renard said. “I had no right, and I can hear it in your voice that your heart is not in this, nor should it be. I will let you go.”

“Are you sure you can get by without me?”

Renard laughed. It was a mix of fatigue and emotional release.

“No, I would never dare say that my situation is better without you, but I trust that I’ve turned the odds enough in my favor to succeed.”

“Can you get me off this thing?”

“I’m afraid there is insufficient time to send a boat to you,” Renard said. “I can arrange transportation from the island to Tokyo for your flight home, but you’ll have to make it to the island on your own.”

“You’re banking that I’m a strong swimmer.”

“You’re strong at everything, mon ami.”

“So that’s it?”

“Give me a moment to speak to Henri first,” Renard said. “I will contact him on the ship’s radio.”

Jake lowered the phone and took in the island’s silhouette. It offered his exodus, but it threatened his longstanding bond of loyalty with Renard.

A voice from below startled him.

“Jake?”

“Henri?”

“I’m coming to the bridge,” Henri said.

As Henri’s soles thumped against metal ladder rungs, Jake looked to his phone. Renard had hung up.

Henri’s white hair emerged through the girder floor.

“I’m disappointed, but I understand,” Henri said. “Pierre told me everything.”

“I’m glad you understand.”

“Here,” Henri said. “For your phone or any other valuables you might have.”

The Frenchman extended a small waterproof sack.

“Thank you,” Jake said.

“Head below and exit from the sail door. You don’t want to risk jumping from here. I will secure the bridge.”

Through Henri’s attempt at graciousness, Jake sensed his standoffishness. Abandoning a comrade prior to combat created discomfort.

Jake descended the ladder and placed his shoe on the lip of the pressure hull. He turned and opened the door. It creaked open. He ducked through it, closed it behind him, and crept around the sail to its far side where he paused to fulfill his promise of calling his wife.

Unwilling to specify the terms of his return home for fear of overpromising, he told her that he loved her but could make no commitment to a return date. She wanted more information, but he held his ground.

He put his phone into its bag, noted the direction to beacon, and leapt into the water.

 

CHAPTER 13

 

John Brody glared at Defense Secretary Rickets with the intent to gore him.

“Spit it out,” he said. “You’ve been talking in circles for ten minutes. You already talk like a politician.”

“Okay,” Rickets said. “You’re to withdraw all naval forces from the waters and airspaces of the Korean Peninsula, beginning immediately with a complete withdrawal in forty-eight hours. South Korea will defend itself.”

“Of course,” Brody said. “Now that the outcome is a known quantity, we back out and let our ally look strong in the finish. I get it.”

Rickets shifted in his chair.

“I expected more emotion from you,” he said. “And I expected you to ask if the president had already formally agreed, but instead you’re acting like you foresaw this.”

“I did,” Brody said. “And I’ve ordered the fleet to prepare redeployment plans, and they’re ready to execute at a moment’s notice.”

Rickets’ face hardened.

“Redeployment plans? What are you up to?”

“You know damned well what I’m up to,” Brody said. “Korea was a diversion. Chinese submarine operations in Japanese waters was just a distraction. I have capital warships that can converge on Taiwan in time to alter the outcome.”

“Need I remind you, admiral, that taking action without consensus is unacceptable?”

“The Air Force and Marine Corps support me,” Brody said. “You’ll find the Army lukewarm to an invasion if you ask, but the general is unlikely to support you standing in my way. The chairman is abstaining from voicing his position, but he’s just waiting for me to act before he gets on board. I know he will because he knows that kicking the Chinese off that island is the right thing to do.”

Rickets stiffened in his chair as he pointed at Brody’s nose.

“You accuse me of playing politics when I take a rational approach. Now you’re rallying troops for your own glory at the risk of tens of thousands of lives. That’s selfish warmongering, and I won’t stand for it. Nor will the president.”

“He will when he realizes he needs to in order to protect his legacy,” Brody said. “He doesn’t want to be the president remembered for cowering to China, and I’m not about to be the Chief of Naval Operations who let it happen.”

“He doesn’t want to be the president responsible for unnecessary mass casualties when a brokered and diplomatically sound peace is within reach.”

Brody realized he was on the edge of his seat. He took a breath and pushed himself back.

“There’s no peace within reach while the fleet remains out of striking distance,” Brody said.

“Renard is taking care of that,” Rickets said. “Or did you forget that Taiwan is taking matters into its own hands?”

The thought of Renard had taken root in Brody’s mind. If nothing else, he realized, the Frenchman carried an encouraging charm. Needing a break from his anger, he exhaled and turned his attention to the monitor.

Rickets raised a remote from the arm of his chair, and speakers chirped. A dark screen presented the image of a Frenchman who portrayed newfound color and vigor.

“Good day gentlemen,” Renard said.

“I hope the Taiwanese Navy shares your spirits today,” Rickets said. “You look inspired.”

“I am. And the fleet is ready, I assure you.”

“Then everything is per plan, except our previously discussed exception about having only eighteen patrol craft available?” Rickets asked.

“There is one additional minor exception that has arisen, but for which I was well prepared,” Renard said. “Mister Slate will no longer be involved.”

“What’s wrong?” Rickets asked.

“I let him go,” Renard said. “I decided that I no longer needed him.”

Brody considered the news a reprieve, a chance to confront Slate again. It also seemed a bittersweet opportunity that increased his chances of rescuing Taiwan by increasing the chances of Renard failing and needing his fleet’s intervention.

“I delivered him to you because you told me you needed him,” Rickets said. “I’ve made decisions assuming you would succeed based upon assumptions that you had him in your service. You would upset this balance at this late hour?”

“I agree that it sounds underhanded,” Renard said. “But it was more of a realization.”

“I’m all ears.”

“Years ago I drafted a plan to allow Taiwan to stand against the mainland, and I eventually crafted a place for Slate within it. But my plan will survive contact with the enemy because I’ve had the luxury of time and resources to prepare an advantage. In the final analysis, Slate was only an insurance policy.”

“You’re not one to let your odds slip, even slightly,” Rickets said. “There’s something else at work here.”

Renard inhaled from a Marlboro, sighed out the smoke, and returned his attention to the camera.

“Indeed,” he said. “His heart is not in this. He doesn’t feel any loyalty–at least no loyalty to me, my team, Taiwan, or anything else that I can see.”

“We knew that going in,” Rickets said. “That’s why I applied pressure to get him there.”

“There’s more. I’m afraid the narrow escape from the submarine pen shook his confidence.”

“We heard the explosions and an abnormally effective countermeasure system,” Rickets said. “We assumed that was him, but I had no idea his escape was narrow.”

“It indeed was,” Renard said. “For the life of me, however, I cannot determine what mistake he might have made. I’ve heard the recordings from the islet’s hydrophone systems and from the Hai Ming itself. I’ll grant that the Chinese had reason to suspect the existence of our submarine pen, but it appears that a Chinese submarine had divine guidance in knowing the exact location during Slate’s departure.”

Brody knew that no submarine commander could launch a weapon without targeting data. He shifted in his seat and prepared a line of questioning for Renard, but Rickets preempted him.

“I know what happened,” Rickets said. “And I’ll share it with you so you can make better decisions about using your submarine pen, and so that you can have a prayer of talking Slate into reuniting with you.”

“Please,” Renard said.

“It was his surface hump.”

Renard squinted into the camera and absorbed the news as he inhaled from his cigarette.

“Damn,” he said. “I might have guessed. I underestimated mainland satellite technology.”

“Don’t beat yourself up,” Rickets said. “We had them pegged at three to five years away from having satellite radar systems good enough to identify submarine surface humps, but we now know that they accelerated the development.”

“To track American submarines, I presume,” Renard said, “until their drones heard Taiwanese submarine activity near the islet. Then they diverted the satellite to watch the pen.”

“And positioned one of their least capable, most expendable submarines at the door at periscope depth to await targeting data from the satellite,” Rickets said. “It was a turkey shoot. There was nothing Slate could do. I don’t know how he managed to survive and even take out the attacking submarine.”

“By escaping, even with help from my defensive hydrazine line designs, he has proven again that he is charmed,” Renard said. “However, the Hai Ming is on station without him, and it’s ready to support the operation. In fact, all is ready.”

“Who’s commanding the Hai Ming?” Rickets asked.

“I am, via telemetry,” Renard said. “The ship will be in constant hardwired communications via surface support, using its drones to locate the enemy. This is how I had originally designed the operation prior to Slate’s involvement. All is per plan, I assure you, even without him.”

For the first time since the secretary had restrained him, Brody’s cage gave way. Seeing daylight, he sprang with legerity and pointed at the monitor, flexing coiled muscles. Unsure if he should gore Renard, Rickets, or anything else in his reddened vision, he released a metered dose of bullish rage.

“Let me get this straight,” he said. “The Chinese are surprising you with their technologies, they found your supposedly hidden submarine pen, and you’re missing your ace commanding officer. Your only hope is launching the world’s first tactical nuclear operation, and you’re telling me to hold back the American fleet so you can take care of things.”

The lingering silence lent gravitas to Brody’s thrust.

“Have I made a valid point?” he asked.

“Indeed you have,” Renard said. “And I cannot disagree with you. I can only ask that you trust me. Should I fail, I will have no choice but to join you in a new conversation about the involvement of the American fleet. But if I succeed, we will hold the tactical edge. Let me prove my merit to you before we entertain future scenarios.”

Brody found the Frenchman smooth and confident, and he grasped how the man could have amassed a large and loyal international following.

He let glimpses of scenarios dance in his head that assumed Renard’s success. Flashes of a chart showing boundaries where Taiwan used its stealth patrol craft to hold back Chinese submarines, giving free reign for American forces to steam toward Taiwan, enticed his imagination.

“Very well,” Brody said. “We’ll know the answer soon enough.”

“I appreciate the opportunity, admiral,” Renard said.

“I wish you luck, Renard,” Brody said. “You’ll need it.”

 

CHAPTER 14

 

Lieutenant Commander Chan retraced the Romeo’s path with his eye. With the South Korean Navy content that his countrymen had sunk the submarine that destroyed their corvette, he had driven his hijacked submarine eastward, unfettered by suspecting hunters, toward the Korean Peninsula.

He tapped Lieutenant Gao’s forearm, nudging him from his boredom. The executive officer lifted his angular chin from his palms and stretched his arms while yawning. Chan noted the rapid onset of Gao’s fatigue.

“Sorry, sir.”

“You may rest soon, Gao,” Chan said. “Check my judgment. Do you concur that it’s time to turn south?”

Gao glanced at the chart and seemed to hesitate with the easy question. The illuminated cross-hair converged on the penciled line showing the path Chan had prescribed for the Romeo.

“Yes, sir. I concur.”

“Good,” Chan said. “Send one of the other officers here to relieve me of the deck. Then get my next radio reception to Park on a jump drive as soon as it’s downloaded. After that, take three hours of rest.”

Gao acknowledged the order and departed.

Chan ordered his Romeo’s control room shifted to red lighting to let his irises dilate. He then ordered the ship southward and held a railing as the deck tilted. As the movement steadied, he gave the command to come shallow.

Reaching, he shifted a control ring, heard hydraulic servos clink, and watched the silvery periscope slither upward. He gave the order and placed his eye to the optics.

The night sky revealed empty water as he ordered the radio mast raised. Minutes passed as message traffic confirmed his shifted command structure from the North Sea Fleet to the East Sea Fleet.

Upon descending deeper and leveling the Romeo, he relinquished the deck to the officer Gao had sent to relieve him, and he read a printout of the message from his new command authority, the East Sea Fleet, verifying that his anticipated navigational track remained clear of interference from other fleet vessels.

Satisfied, he walked aft toward the engine room where he passed the whirring starboard propulsion motor as it drove sealed reduction gears. Further down the starboard shaft, he came to a pair of sailors seated on folding chairs and crouched over laptop computers.

Beside the sailors, duct tape bound a dozen more laptops to makeshift plywood shelves perched on hydraulic piping. Additional duct tape restrained extension cords and surge suppressors to the deck plates.

Chan crouched beside a strip of tape.

“Any luck, Park?” he asked.

The young sailor looked up, blinked, and rubbed his beady and bloodshot eyes.

“Sir?” Park asked.

Chan had selected Able Seaman Yueng-Ji Park to join his crew for his cryptologic prowess.

While examining a potential volunteer crew for his mission, Chan had sought radio technicians who scored high on entrance exams measuring technical aptitude but low in their exams in their primary rate of radio communications.

A man too smart for the training would be bored and would muddle through his radio training, Chan reasoned. Such a man might have other interests, such as hacking decrypting algorithms in otherwise secure message traffic.

When he discovered in Park’s service dossier that the man’s only disciplinary action had resulted from hacking into a naval personnel database to reduce his service obligation, he had found his man.

He promised Park early freedom from his military service in exchange for breaking into Chinese East Sea Fleet message traffic. Ignorant of his final mission and mistrustful of his final extraction from it, Chan wanted to know the orders his fleet gave to his surrounding assets.

He had dedicated the younger seaman seated beside Park to serve as his cryptologist apprentice. The seaman nodded and pointed at Park’s screen.

“It looks like you found something,” Chan said.

“Oh, that,” Park said. “That was easy.”

“What did you find?”

“Well, sir. First, I discovered that the East Sea Fleet shares nothing with the North Sea Fleet for encrypted orders. It’s completely different.”

“As you expected, correct?”

“Correct, sir. I also learned that all maritime patrol aircraft in the East Sea Fleet share the same encryption scheme. One of the messages we downloaded during our last snorkel operation was from Ningbo to all patrol craft.”

“How do you know already?”

“I broke an earlier message from the East Sea Fleet that we picked up yesterday,” Park said. “The message traffic had no specific orders for us yet, but I was still able to break the key for the patrol aircraft orders.”

Chan hadn’t asked Park to crack patrol aircraft codes, but he reasoned it was a good use of his time.

“Okay,” he said. “So how do you know there wasn’t any specific message for a specific aircraft within the main message?”

“The message required only one decryption algorithm, and I decrypted most bits. The bits I couldn’t decode were repetitive symbols serving as synchronizing characters, meaningless preamble if you will. Within the message, the text had specific information for each aircraft.”

“That sounds like a vulnerability,” Chan said.

“Not so much, sir. Patrol areas are vast. The orders are dull, such as aircraft one patrols a large box of sky, aircraft two patrols another. It’s the sort of basics telling them not to fly into each other. Nothing risky if an adversary learns of it.”

“And so you broke that scheme already?”

“It was a small key by modern standards and took only a few hours running my decryption algorithms in parallel.”

He waved his palm over the laptops.

“In parallel?”

“Yes, sir,” Park said. “It’s just bitwise mathematics. An encrypted message is the original message multiplied by a key of ones and zeroes. No encryption is perfect, but the more bits you use, the more times you have to attempt the multiplication to stumble upon the proper key.”

“What does that mean in terms of time?”

Park glanced into the submarine’s overhead piping and ran his index finger under his smooth chin while crafting a response.

“Well, you see, sir, it’s a binary matter. If you need to multiply a message by a one-hundred and twenty-eight-bit key, there are two to the power of that many permutations to attempt to break the code.”

“That’s a big number,” Chan said.

“Of course, sir. With conventional computers, a brute force decryption would be impossible. But the computers you bought me have parallel field-programmable gate array cluster hardware. They are made for running decryption algorithms. It reduces the brute force hacking time significantly.”

“How significantly?” Chan asked.

“For the encryption I expect to see from the fleet, a matter of decades.”

Chan frowned.

“I’m not following. You said you had a good chance of decrypting all message traffic.”

“Oh yes, sir. The biggest time savings is obviating the need for a brute force attack by identifying flaws in the supposed randomness of the encrypting computer.”

“Go on.”

“Perfect encryption assumes the generation of a perfect random number behind each encryption key, but I know that the fleet’s cryptology computers are generating imperfect random numbers.”

“That sounds like a flaw in fleet security.”

“It is only for someone like me who already has access to decrypted message traffic. Since I know how the cryptology computers attempt to create randomness for the once-encrypted general fleet updates plus the second-encrypted specific orders to our own ship, I can predict how they create randomness for other messages to other ships within the fleet. This reduces the complexity from impossible to just a modest challenge.”

Park angled his nose to the monitor as if his conversation with Chan were an inconvenience.

“So it’s possible for a ship within the fleet to break the codes of another ship within the fleet?”

“It’s quite possible,” Park said. “The rationale is that it’s not a threat. What does it matter if you know where another ship is steaming or what it’s shooting at when we all take our orders from the same place? But for outsiders that have to break each general message once and then break it again for each ship’s orders, it is statistically impossible.”

Chan envisioned a bit stream of ones and zeroes in his mind to convince himself the report obeyed logic.

“Well done, Park,” he said.

“This was easy. I expect a challenge for fighting or attack aircraft.”

“And for surface vessels and submarines?” Chan asked.

“Yes, sir. That will be the biggest challenge, depending on the nature of the message traffic. I have something I can show you, for example.”

Park’s eyes remained on his laptop monitor as he tapped the keyboard. Chan commended himself for showing patience facing the geek’s quirkiness.

“What do you have?” he asked.

“Our last message telling us about our navigation area also included messages for other East Sea Fleet submarines that are probably nearby us.”

“Let me see.”

Park swiveled the computer on his lap, revealing a text file showing the Romeo’s last navigational orders surrounded by data Chan had not seen when the message was printed for him. There were twelve-character codes followed by bodies of text that appeared as gibberish.

“Why is this different than from my printouts in the control room?” he asked.

“The control room printer recognizes these header codes as information for other vessels and ignores them,” Park said. “Otherwise the printer would just waste paper and ink.”

“Do you know what the other vessels are?”

“No, sir. Not until I break their specific encryptions. I expect that each vessel has its own specific encryption code, as we do.”

Although the fleet withheld his mission from him, Chan had been promised a safe return home after scuttling the submarine and escaping on a surface vessel dispatched to rescue his crew. But something in the way his mission materialized, piecemeal, in broken segments issued by various admirals, fed to him in suspicious scraps, roused his suspicions. He had recruited Park and equipped him with an army of computers to verify the orders to his rescuing vessel would be forthcoming.

“You’ll report immediately if you break a code for any vessel,” Chan said.

“Of course, sir,” Park said.

“Keep it up, Park. Do you need anything from me? Something to drink? Food?”

Park had already lowered his nose to his monitor, tapping keys. His apprentice nudged him, and he responded without looking up.

“No, thank you, sir. We have plenty of tea.”

He nodded toward plastic cups holding damp leaves on the deck plate beside a thermos of hot water.

Chan stood, turned, and walked away.

The image of an exhausted and caffeine-fueled geek drifted from his mind as he ambled forward to recheck the distance between his submarine and the Japanese Ryukyu Island chain.

Assuming quiet waters surrounding him, he would seek rest and await news from Park about orders to a rescue ship that would lend comforting hope to his still-veiled fate.

CHAPTER 15

After slinking behind swing shift naval staff seated at monitors, Pierre Renard prowled to the central plotting table, rapped his claws against its plastic edge, and sniffed the regional waters.

The luminous dots and lines portrayed a quiet evening, and he stood and turned toward a vacant control station.

The junior admiral supervising the evening watch passed and forced a greeting so mundane that Renard realized he had become a fixture in the Keelung naval command center. He nodded and slipped into a seat.

His finger caressed a mouse wheel, bringing the screen to life. Having memorized the meaning of the icons beside Chinese characters, he clicked the one that directed an encrypted hailing signal to the western edge of the Philippine Sea.

Awaiting a response, he fumbled at his shirt pocket and crinkled cellophane. He twisted and looked over his shoulder, noticing a solitary smoker across the room. Free from others’ fumes, he invoked willpower and released the Marlboros.

He clicked the icon again, and his nerves unraveled as he awaited confirmation of his hailing.

A voice speaking English startled him.

“Excuse me, Mister Renard,” a staff translator said. “Admiral Ye asked me to check for you in the command center and offer my assistance.”

“He suspected I’d be here, did he? Very well, I could use your help.”

Renard pointed toward the screen, and the man crouched beside him.

“I suspect that one of these icons sets my hailing request onto an automated interval, every five minutes or longer, depending which icon I click. Does that agree with the writing?”

The man pointed.

“Yes, I think so. This icon mentions a one-minute interval. This one five. The next one fifteen. I assume this is what you mean.”

Renard clicked the five-minute interval icon and saw a system response in Chinese characters.

“What is that?” he asked.

“Confirmation that you have indeed set the system up to send your hailing message every five minutes.”

“Yes, thank you,” Renard said.

The translator stood.

“Shall I stay and assist you?”

Renard groped for the Marlboros at his breast, thought better of it, and lowered his hand.

“No,” he said. “Yes, wait. Can you find out who among tonight’s staff is in communication with the fishing vessel?”

A blank look of confusion overtook the man.

“Of course,” he said. “I will find out.”

Renard silently cursed the East Asian inability to admit confusion, and he attempted to extract the truth without invoking shame.

“Before you depart, may I specify the fishing vessel with which I wish to communicate?”

“Yes, of course. Please.”

“I will show you then,” Renard said.

He stood, walked to the navigation chart, and pointed.

“Here,” he said. “Two miles outside the twelve-mile national water boundary. This is the submarine with which I ultimately wish to communicate.”

“I see,” the translator said.

“A helicopter dispatched a dive team over the submarine to attach a cable to its external communications connection. The cable runs three miles to the fishing vessel here.”

“The fishing vessel was fishing outside the minefield prior to the mainland laying it?”

“Indeed,” Renard said. “And it has been pressed into service. The helicopter delivered electronics and radio equipment. It is through this connection that I will control the submarine–the submarine that I cannot hail despite the expected time for its response having passed twenty minutes ago.”

“I understand,” the translator said. “I will speak to the flag watch officer immediately.”

Alone, Renard tormented himself with worst case scenarios. The communication line had severed, the fishing vessel had mutinied, or Henri had suffered defeat with the Hai Ming being lost at sea.

This time, the crinkling pack reached his mouth, and he wrapped his lips around a cigarette. His Zippo lighter approached the butt when a sound distracted him.

Henri’s voice.

He stabbed the Marlboro into his breast pocket and darted for the console. A grainy image of his friend against the backdrop of the submarine’s control room flickered. Renard fumbled for a boom microphone and headset and slid it over his silvery hair.

“Yes, Henri,” he said. “I see you. Go ahead.”

“I hear you, Pierre.”

Henri’s face was an unreadable ghostly rendering.

“How are you, my friend?”

“Say again, Pierre. Poor reception.”

“I hear you rather well. Can you report a status?”

“I’m not sure what you’re saying,” Henri said. “I have contact with a hostile submarine. I need your guidance.”

The news surprised Renard, but he rationalized it.

The Chinese had uncountable spies in Taiwan pointing telescopes and binoculars at the water. The Chinese must have noticed the migration of patrol craft from one naval base to another in preparation for the egress. He found the lurking hostile Chinese submarine presence logical.

“Henri,” he said. “Tell me everything. Target range, target bearing, your true bearing. Your speed, target speed if you have it. Any identification of submarine class?”

Henri’s face flickered as Renard heard the unintelligible static of his mutated voice. Then the screen turned black.

“Damn!” Renard said.

He whipped off his headset and tossed it on the keyboard. Shifting in his seat, he lowered his head toward his knees and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“Mister Renard,” the translator said.

“Yes, man?”

“The commander in the console across the room is in communications with the fishing vessel. He has learned that the dive team had to be dispatched to tighten a loose connection at a cable interface. They expect communications with the submarine to be reestablished soon.”

“Thank you,” Renard said. “Please inform me of updates as you learn them. And tomorrow, have the console next to me staffed with the officer in charge of communicating with the fishing vessel.”

“I will see to it.”

“Also, let the watch admiral know that I am going to update the tactical scenario with the presence of an enemy submarine that the Hai Ming has detected.”

Renard returned to the navigation chart, grabbed a touch pad, and wiggled his thumb across it. A red dot framed by an inverted semicircle appeared atop the blue semicircle of the Hai Ming. Renard slid his thumb, and a circle of uncertainty stretched from the red dot.

Considering that the Hai Ming had deployed drones into the edge of the minefield, Renard reshaped the enemy submarine’s circle of uncertainty westward, morphing his circle into an oval.

On the chart’s opposite side, the smallish man in a white one-star admiral’s uniform clasped his hands behind his back and nodded.

Renard turned and paced an arc behind the backs of seated officers. Hoping for Henri’s reappearance, he kept his dark monitor in sight.

A door to the antechamber opened, revealing a face puffy with sleep. Admiral Ye slid into the center, and the junior admiral sprang to him to offer a report. Ye bobbed his jaw up and down and then dismissed his underling.

He and Renard closed distance, and the Frenchman smelled the scent of halitosis and armpits.

“Mister Renard, I understand the Hai Ming has discovered a hostile submarine.”

“Yes, my friend. But I have no data beyond the known presence. I await communications being reestablished to bring you better information.”

“Do you intend to engage?”

“No. Not unless the hostile is a threat to the Hai Ming. I cannot even verify there is adequate targeting data or if the hostile is in range.”

“I’ve been told you will have communications soon. If you decide to engage, wake me. Otherwise, I will rest. Tomorrow is a momentous day.”

“Of course, my old friend. Get your rest.”

“You, too, Renard. I need you alert, especially with the absence of Slate.”

“I will get adequate rest, I assure you.”

Ye departed, and Renard hovered over his console, urging it to life. As minutes gnawed at him, he yielded to the nicotine odor and reached for his unlit cigarette.

The officer at the console next to him stood, distracting him. The commander from across the room responsible for communicating with the fishing merchant appeared in his place, flanked by the translator.

“I’ve taken the liberty of shifting the fishing vessel communications here now,” the translator said. “It will also be here tomorrow morning as you requested.”

“Thank you. Any news?”

As Renard slid the cigarette back into his pocket, the seated commander fired urgent words in Mandarin into his headset microphone boom. After a rapid exchange, he updated the translator.

“The connection is repaired,” he said. “You should have visual within seconds.”

Renard curled his hips around his chair back and landed in the seat. Before he could slide on the headset, Henri’s clear image appeared.

“Henri?”

“Much better, Pierre. I can hear you clearly, and I can see you this time.”

“Excellent! Where am I situated?”

“I’ve taped a laptop with the webcam to the captain’s chair,” Henri said. “Right where you belong.”

“Do I have a tactical feed?”

“Yes,” Henri said. “Antoine saw to it with a pair of electricians. He said it was easy with the Subtics design. The user guide had a procedure for tapping into the central data. You can access any screen you want.”

Renard looked at the blank monitor above his and then to the translator.

“Can I get a tactical feed from the Hai Ming displayed here?”

“I will see to it.”

Renard looked to Henri’s image.

“Is the hostile submarine close?”

“Antoine doesn’t think so. We can’t hear it now.”

The news calmed Renard.

“That simplifies matters. How did you detect it?”

“The starboard drone. Lieutenant Commander Jin has proven his skill at deploying and using drones. It was a flawless swim two miles ahead and five miles abeam.”

“I see,” Renard said. “You’ve fully deployed the drones for tomorrow’s exercise.”

“Yes. We heard the hostile submarine bearing three-five-two from the starboard drone. The drone heard the submarine’s blade rate, correlating to four knots, Song class, but the sound is now gone, over two hours ago. We’re not hearing it on any shipboard intrinsic systems.”

“Very well, then. It’s unworthy of alarm, but a tactical advantage in knowing of the enemy’s presence. Keep listening for other submarines. I hardly expect this fellow to be alone.”

“I will, Pierre. I must also add that Antoine detected a hull popping transient from the hostile vessel about two hours ago, but it wasn’t while the drone heard it.”

“Hull popping? You’re shallow?”

“Yes. Why?”

A technician, his face red with sleep, arrived at the console and gestured at the blank upper screen. Renard stood and stepped aside, his wired headset tethering him in orbit around the console.

“He went to snorkel depth, and his hull expanded with the lessening of sea pressure,” he said. “The sound traveled in a duct of water near the surface. That’s why you heard it on a ship’s sonar and not the deeper drone.”

“Pierre? Did I err?”

Frustrated, Renard imagined the outcome if Jake Slate had been in charge. Jake would have concluded that the drone and the hull popping were damning clues about the Song class submarine.

His protégé would have connected the line between the drone and the Song with the one drawn from the Hai Ming to its target with a third line representing four knots of speed, a reasonable estimate for the hostile Song.

Though the solutions connecting these lines contained infinite iterations spanning fractional degrees, Jake would have boxed in their extremes, and he would have deduced that he had a high probability of destroying the Song with a torpedo targeted at the center of these bounds.

Jake would have considered the risks, calculated the gains, and fired a torpedo. That torpedo would have snuck up on the unsuspecting Song and destroyed it. Jake would have revealed the existence of the Hai Ming to the Chinese, but Renard would have preferred this over letting the capable Song remain in the upcoming engagement.

The sting of the leadership gap Jake’s departure had opened hurt, but Renard rationalized that Henri had maintained the element of surprise by being too ignorant of his advantage to exploit it.

“No my friend,” he said. “You did precisely as I had hoped you would.”

The console’s upper screen came to life with a sonar display from the Hai Ming’s Subtics system.

“Ah,” Renard said, “I see your sonar screen.”

“Excellent,” Henri said.

Renard looked to the translator.

“Ask the technician if I can control the screens.”

Renard watched the translator inform the technician of his request. The technician toggled through screens, demonstrating that Renard could see each one from the Hai Ming. However, the technician made no attempt to control them. The scaling, the frequencies to observe, which torpedo’s parameters to monitor… all of it out of reach, Renard concluded.

“Thank you, that’s enough,” he said. “You may dismiss the technician.”

He sat and looked to Hai Ming’s control room.

“Henri,” he said, “have a man at my disposal tomorrow who can serve as my hands on your consoles. I don’t want it to be you because you will be busy relaying my orders.”

“Of course, Pierre. It will be tight up here with the extra body, but we’ve been through worse.”

Renard’s adrenaline diminished, yielding to the swelling fatigue. He recognized that he had accomplished all he could for the night and had shaken out the kinks in the vital link to the Hai Ming.

He wished Henri a peaceful night, shutdown his console, and skulked to his quarters.

 

CHAPTER 16

 

Pierre Renard rolled from his bunk and pressed his feet against rough carpet. He bounded forward, a long nap and anticipation energizing him.

In his tiny quarters, he crept to the washbasin, met his gaze’s reflection with eyes of blue steel, and examined himself. The mirror showed sharp features that, despite lines cutting into his face, retained a classic handsomeness under silver hair.

He brushed his teeth, spat, and rinsed his mouth. Glaring at day-old stubble, he decided that the patrol ship egress operation deserved a fresh shave. A razor buzzed as it grazed his chin. Slapping Versace aftershave against his jaw, he judged his image deserving of the man who would drive the day’s victory.

He reached into the stall, rotated dials, and awaited the rise of steam. Registering hot water with his palm, he slid into the shower and rubbed a loofa over his lean physique. He shut off the flow, pranced to the towel rack, and rubbed fabric over cooling droplets.

Clothed in his trademark Chinos and white dress shirt under a gray blazer, he shut his chamber door and crept down a passageway. Oil-based brush strokes of Taiwan’s seaborne military lineage sailed by, summoning his admiration from cherry wood frames. Empty wallpaper at the end of his pictorial time warp harkened future heroes, and Renard envisioned the Hai Ming and a stealth patrol craft challenging each other from opposing walls.

Reaching the cafeteria, he surprised the serving crew setting up the guest breakfast buffet. Aware that the only other guests at the command center were military journalists with no preparation required to chronicle the day from the control center’s upper deck observatory, he expected to arrive first and eat alone. He gathered his breakfast, sat, and ate while cycling through his mental checklist of the egress mission’s details.

He wiped his mouth and dropped his cloth napkin to the table. Coffee, oatmeal, and melon within him, he walked to an access point. He nodded to a uniformed guard, showed the badge dangling around his neck, and punched a key code into cipher lock. The door to the inner nerve of Taiwan’s naval and air defense, staffed by its skeletal midnight crew, slid open. He slid through the doorframe and found his way to the central navigation chart.

Taiwanese defenses agreed with his expectations. Two blue triangles representing F-16 Fighting Falcon combat patrols flew in a northerly track on the island’s contested western edge, defining a fuzzy battle boundary at the Straits of Taiwan. The other four covered the northeast and southeast edges of the island, defying Chinese surface and air assets to maneuver east into the Philippine Sea.

Renard considered the air patrols thin, but he respected the Taiwanese gambit to preserve fuel in favor of keeping a full-scale vigil. The defenses had to both hold and endure.

He noted Suao Harbor, where eighteen interlaced blue semicircles represented the patrol vessels.

The flag watch officer, a man taller and more senior than the evening shift officer, slid beside him and spoke in respectable English.

“I will be off duty when you lead this operation, Mister Renard,” he said. “But I will watch from the observatory. It will be a great achievement to reestablish undersea control of the Philippine Sea.”

“This is but one step of many leading to the lasting independence for your countrymen.”

The admiral’s face darkened as he pressed his wireless earpiece against his cheek. He spoke with hoarse gravity, and moments later a soft siren whined, and pulsating red strobes bathed the control room.

“What is it?” Renard asked.

“Air attack,” the admiral said.

“Where?”

“Southern quadrant. Please, give us room.”

The Frenchman circled the navigation chart to its far side and allowed officers to converge upon the admiral. The first to arrive wore a captain’s uniform with glinting wings over his breast pocket that revealed him as the senior aviation expert on watch.

The meaningless Mandarin exchanges muted in his mind, Renard watched an unwelcome fire of six red triangles rise in the South China Sea. Long red lines foretold the future of the assailing jets, and he pursed his lips while contemplating their destination. A fuel depot seemed possible, but surface-to-air missile batteries rendered it impregnable.

Blue lines from the four nearest Taiwanese Falcons veered toward the Chinese jets, and four more lines came to life over runways, signaling the launch of ready alert aircraft. As minutes passed and the Taiwanese air defense shield faced the inbound invaders, Renard considered the attack impotent. He smelled a ruse.

He blinked, and as if queued by his suspicion, the scenario changed. The red lines reversed direction and new red triangles appeared from the southeast.

Recognizing the southern aircraft as decoys, Renard looked to a lone blue semicircle representing a secondhand American Kidd class destroyer, defending its new Taiwanese owners as the Ma Kong. Stranded outside the minefield, the Ma Kong lent its arsenal of anti-air missiles to the island’s weak eastern air defense net.

Grasping the intent of the encroaching hostile aircraft, Renard’s tail bristled. Though miles upwind, his predatory instinct sniffed the movements of the hunt. He lifted his snout and barked a warning.

“I suspect their target,” he said.

Mandarin murmurs fell, and the admiral looked up.

“Speak, Renard,” he said.

“The Ma Kong.”

The air officer shrugged, cocked his head, and nodded, providing tepid support to Renard’s hypothesis.

“I acknowledge the possibility,” the admiral said. “I am vectoring the Falcon aircraft to intercept the incoming attack, but there are at least eight intruders. If the target is indeed the Ma Kong, it will face a formidable force.”

Renard calculated the munitions hail storm of eight attack jets against the twin dual-rail launchers and limited fire control radar systems of the Ma Kong. The numbers weighed upon him.

He teased himself with the fantasy that Taiwan owned an Aegis destroyer with ripple-launch ability from vertical missile cells and impregnable electronic tracking systems. Against an Aegis, the Chinese intruders would be on a suicide mission, but as reality reentered his mind, he lamented that the inbound aircraft would overrun the Ma Kong.

Officers, several picking crust from their tired eyes, flocked into the control center. Admiral Ye appeared beside the watch officer, who pointed at the chart while updating his leader.

While he spoke, two red triangles broke off from the Chinese squadron to engage the Taiwanese Falcons.

“Yes, of course!” Renard said. “Damn!”

As the alarms in the center subsided in response to being silenced, Admiral Ye shot the Frenchman a cold stare.

“Mister Renard, do you have insights?”

“They’ve sent two air-to-air fighters to engage your Falcons,” Renard said. “That they only sent two tells me the rest of the aircraft intend to attack surface targets. Their two fighters are standoffs against your Falcons, opening the way for the other aircraft, probably bombers, to attack.”

“Attack the Ma Kong?” Ye asked.

“As a first target only,” Renard said. “They will attack the Ma Kong and then continue to the patrol convoy.”

“The patrol convoy is their primary target?” Ye asked.

“Precisely,” Renard said.

Ye barked in Mandarin, and a commander stationed at a console turned and announced his obeying of the order. The commander exchanged words with a distant officer via a headset and updated Ye.

“I’ve alerted the patrol craft,” Ye said.

A hush overtook the circle of officers, followed by rapid fire exchanges as the red triangles split and multiplied like cells under a microscope. The Chinese raiders had doubled as the F-16 Falcons discriminated the radar signatures of the close-flying aircraft.

Renard realized he had expended his value in the air engagement, and his clients would have to prove the merit of their defense without his support.

He crept away from the navigation chart and escaped to the momentary refuge of his console to hail the Hai Ming.

Sliding his headset over his hair, he saw the crisp features of a young Taiwanese submarine officer.

“Lieutenant Pao, officer of the deck,” he said.

“Good morning, lieutenant,” Renard said. “How is the ship’s status?”

“No hostile submarines noted. No regain of the Song.”

“That is good,” Renard said. “Remain alert, though. They will return. How are the ship’s systems?”

“All systems normal. The battery is fully charged, and there are four drones deployed.”

“Four?” Renard asked. “Is that possible?”

“For the standard operator, no, sir. But Lieutenant Commander Jin is exceptional. He deployed the two additional drones before retiring last night.”

“Very well,” Renard said. “I will trust him.”

Renard let the thoughts of drones pass and considered the direct implications of the air attack on the Hai Ming submarine. There were none, but an indirect possibility of a coordinated air and undersea attack compelled him to roust the crew.

“Listen, lieutenant,” he said. “There is a major air attack taking place to the north. I see no direct threat to the ship, but you must alert the crew and man battle stations.”

The young officer raised his eyebrows and acknowledged the order. Renard fumbled for his cigarettes, teased himself with their scent under his nose, and admired his will power in returning them to his pocket.

Henri appeared in his camera’s view, fatigue and concern carving shadowed recesses into his face.

“An attack already, Pierre?”

“Yes, my friend,” Renard said. “For your sake, I trust there is nothing to fear, but you must be alert.”

“Of course, Pierre.”

“If you identify a hostile submarine within seven nautical miles, contact me,” Renard said. “If you suspect one within five miles, shoot it.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’m shutting down communications until this air attack is over. Let us not risk that an attacking jet gets a lucky sniff of radio traffic giving a clue to your location.”

“I see,” Henri said. “I know what to do.”

Renard terminated the communications and noticed the prior evening’s translator standing beside him.

“I came when the alarms sounded in the quarters.”

“Good,” Renard said. “Can you verify that the fishing vessel has ceased transmitting? It must remain in emissions control until I say otherwise.”

The translator spoke with the navy commander seated at the console beside Renard. The officer nodded and verified the fishing ship’s status.

Renard slid the headset to the keyboard and swiveled his chair to examine the battle. But instead of taking in the chart’s tactical data, he looked up to a verbal exchange. Admiral Ye surprised him with the stern tone he directed towards one of his junior admirals.

Ye’s junior flag officer appeared broken to the verge of tears, and the somber faces surrounding the room’s solitary and one-way conversation reminded Renard of a dirge.

Ye finished his monologue and extended his arm toward the exit. The gesture struck Renard as a compassionate but irrefutable order as the junior admiral marched away.

Renard awaited a brief pause in the battle action to stalk Ye.

“May I be of service?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” Ye said. “We are preparing to defend the second target of the attack, which appears to be the patrol craft at Suao, as you anticipated. I commend your foresight in arming them with Stinger air defense missiles. I question the efficacy of the missiles, even the updated variants you insisted upon, but you’ve at least given them hope of fighting back. You’ve done all you can.”

“May I ask how the battle fares? I sense mixed emotions.”

“The exchange is thus far costly for both sides,” Ye said. “Two Falcons held the air-to-air fighters to a stalemate while the Ma Kong shot down half of the incoming aircraft, but the surviving aircraft overwhelmed it with missiles.”

“Overwhelmed?” Renard asked. “Lost?”

“Destroyed, with few survivors expected.”

“I am sorry.”

“The admiral you saw me dismiss,” Ye said, “is one of my best destroyer sailors.”

“I had thought otherwise after observing your exchange with the man.”

Renard noted compassion in Ye’s eyes.

“His son was the executive officer on the Ma Kong,” Ye said. “There are times to ignore human suffering, and there are times for grieving. I determined his son’s death to be the latter case and relieved him.”

“A bold but necessary decision,” Renard said.

“This is now beyond scenarios foreseen in our doctrine,” Ye said. “Bombers are attacking stealth patrol craft tied to their piers. There is no prescribed response. There has been no training.”

“Indeed,” Renard said. “This is the fog of war.”

“Do you have any advice?”

Renard scanned his mental inventory of airborne weapons hardware and the tactics of using them, and the contradiction shot to his mind.

“They proved against the Ma Kong that they are employing weapons that inflict maximum damage to a solitary target, using a combination of radar and infrared seekers, I suspect,” he said. “Set a blaze to your piers to conceal the craft behind fire. This will blind the infrared seekers. Also burn nearby piers to disorient the pilots visually. You must have trucks available to spread fuel.”

Ye curled his finger at a captain who jogged to his side. He relayed the order.

“It will be done,” Ye said. “But this seems a partial solution. They will surely strike with a multitude of weapons.”

“I suspect cluster bombs,” Renard said. “The kind used against tanks. The bombers will want to damage as many patrol craft as possible in a single pass. They will use their remaining missiles, but then they will employ cluster bombs as well.”

“I see,” Ye said. “From their perspective, it is better to cripple two patrol craft than to sink one. They are stopping a mission.”

“Precisely,” Renard said. “And unfortunately, the best defense against cluster bombs is immediate deployment of the ships to sea in a scattered formation.”

“Unfortunately, because they will have no protection from the infrared seekers of single-target missiles?”

“Correct,” Renard said. “Your best defense is a combination of fire and chaff for ships that remain pier-side. For those that can get underway quickly, I recommend dispersing them far from each other to limit the effect of cluster bombs.”

“I will relay the tactical insight to the squadron commander.”

“I don’t envy him his situation,” Renard said. “But I pray that he is a leader ready to prove his merit.”

“I selected him personally for the mission,” Ye said. “If anyone can lead the squadron out of this mess, he is the one.”

 

CHAPTER 17

 

Lieutenant Commander Yang Lei replayed visual echoes of pulsating platinum flashes, digesting them as missile explosions beyond the horizon. As he looked eastward through the bridge windows where the sea’s opaqueness met the stars, a flaming orb from the sinking Ma Kong destroyer flickered, contracted, and yielded to the darkness.

He looked through the starboard bridge window at silhouetted sailors who unraveled nylon lines from the mooring cleats of patrol vessels, low shadows of stealth nestled beside concrete piers. The men moved with warranted urgency, but Lei found the noise of scared voices on the radio net cumbersome.

He impressed himself with his calm grit.

“This is Lei,” he said. “Silence on the line.”

Tickling his peripheral vision through the far bridge window, bands of fire sliced the sky. He slid behind members of his bridge team, brought dimension to his perspective, and watched missiles trace arcs seaward from their launch platforms high in the island’s eastern mountains.

He recognized the Sky Bow missiles, the longest reach of the Taiwanese air net, retaliating against the airborne assailants that had eradicated the Ma Kong. Reckoning fewer rocket plumes than he hoped, he scowled, wanting for stronger shore-based defenses. Despite their supersonic speeds, he resigned to waiting a minute for fate, physics, and the skill of the targeted Chinese pilots to learn if the missiles would hit.

With Taiwan’s focus west toward the mainland, Lei presumed that the Chinese had flown southerly and angled back to punch through a weakness in the air defense net. Having witnessed the fiery end of the destroyer buttressing that vector, he choked back his rising fear of a crushing raiding force and braced for battle.

A vocal cacophony lingered on his headset.

“I said silence on the line!”

Silence held.

“Patrol craft only,” he said, “cast off all lines and make all engines ready. Frigates remain by the pier. Acknowledge via data link. Keep the voice line quiet except for urgent updates.”

He watched his command console accumulate acknowledgments of the orders. Glancing at a nautical chart of Suao Harbor, he calculated how to disperse his ships from its dark morning waters.

“All patrol craft get underway and make top speed outbound,” he said. “At channel marker bravo, I will turn Craft One on bearing of due north. Craft Two, steer bearing zero-one-zero. Three, steer bearing zero-two-zero. That’s ten-degree increments per craft. Each craft acknowledge your outbound bearing via data link.”

Data arrived on his console, each craft’s commander proving he had selected his proper course. Lei appreciated his squadron’s alertness.

“Get underway when capable,” Lei said. “If you reach the minefield keep-out zone, stop. Keep all Stinger missile teams topside, weapons free to engage any aircraft.”

The moonlit silvery wake of a patrol craft two piers away caught his eye, and he saw propeller wash as another ship accelerated past his beam. The silhouettes of two more craft converged in his view, appearing to merge as they crossed paths into the exit channel.

He tapped his executive officer on the shoulder.

“How long?” he asked.

“Twenty seconds, sir. The diesels are online, and the last mooring line is coming off.”

“Stinger team?”

“Topside and ready, sir. On the fantail.”

Lei watched his squadron in exodus slice wakes into the harbor’s tormented waters, and he checked through the port window that the pier’s cleats had released their hold on his ship.

“Now?” he asked.

“Yes!” the executive officer said.

“All ahead standard,” Lei said. “Make turns for fifteen knots.”

As his craft lurched, an inferno rose behind a fuel truck to the south, masking the frigate mated to the far pier. Lei watched the fuel truck sprint along the wharf to replicate the wall of fire beside the frigate at the northern pier, and as flames rose on a distant pier, Lei assumed a second truck contributed to the burning.

“Frigates light up all radars and anti-air defenses,” he said. “Coordinate with shore-based surface-to-air missile batteries. Frigate Cheng Kung has command of all air defenses except Sky Bow. All other assets engage air targets at will. All air defense assets acknowledge via data link.”

Acknowledgements arrived, and he tapped a button to shift his monitor to a tactical overview. Synthesized information from multiple radar systems confirmed his instinct. His squadron scattered under a sky ready to erupt with hell’s fury.

Blue squares represented his eighteen fleeing patrol craft, and red triangles thirty miles away revealed a tight formation of incoming aircraft.

He grasped his executive officer’s shoulder and spoke in his ear. Expecting to be rigid with the giving of orders, Lei surprised himself with a patriarchal calmness. Whether he believed it or not, he oozed an insider’s confidence that he owned the morning.

He sent his executive officer below to the combat information center, the inner nerve where his second-in-command would oversee a tactical control team in the carrying out of his orders.

Sensing Lei’s next move, his third-in-command, his navigation officer, looked up from a chart in the room’s corner.

“Navigator?” Lei asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Take the conn.”

“I have the conn,” the navigator said.

“Get us out of here,” Lei said.

He steadied himself against the console as the deck rolled and trembled. A glance at digital gauges satisfied him that his underling turned the ship to the correct heading and accelerated it to flank speed.

After twisting his boom microphone to his lips, he tapped buttons to hail the captain of the Cheng Kung.

“Yes, sir?” the Cheng Kung’s captain asked.

“Why aren’t you shooting yet?” Lei asked.

“I’m waiting for the Sky Bow missiles, sir. If I engage now, I could waste missiles on aircraft that are about to be shot down.”

“Can’t you redirect missiles in flight?”

“It is possible but not recommended. Our radars can lock and freeze while shifting targets.”

Auburn semicircles riddled the horizon, and Lei deduced that Sky Bow missile warheads engaged low-flying targets. His monitor clarified the outcome–the defenses had thinned the incoming enemy horde to eight aircraft.

“Engage,” Lei said.

Golden exhaust flashes from the single-arm launchers of the moored frigates illuminated the harbor, and Standard Medium Range missiles roared overhead. Stepping off the bridge and onto the superstructure, Lei looked over the fantail and squinted as yellowish plumes flaring from hillocks behind a weapons hangar lifted Hawk missiles after the Standards.

He slapped his palm against flat metal as the patrol craft rolled in the wake of a sister ship. His vessel felt solid and invulnerable to his hand but exposed and ephemeral against darkness’ encroaching menace.

Brilliant bursts lit the shoreline, and he forced his eyes shut while turning his head. The shock wave of supersonic, kerosene-fueled ramjet engines screeched across the sky, compelling him to jam his moist palms into his ears. He blinked, looked to the hillocks, and saw smoke rising as moonlight-swallowing puffs.

The water reflected the chainsaw staccato of a frigate’s Phalanx point defense system spitting desperate uranium sabots. Visible above the pier’s diesel-fueled inferno, detonations danced atop a frigate. Ramjet shock waves pounded Lei’s head again, and he crouched to the superstructure’s nonskid to regain his lucidity.

Those were just the anti-radiation missiles, he thought. Fast and small, homing on the radar systems to silence our defenses. The worst is yet to come.

A damaged frigate electrically blinded and a Sky Hawk radar system silenced, Lei watched the harbor’s halved air defenses flicker with each protective missile’s outbound launch. Wanting to take action, he stepped aft and braced himself on his ship’s anti-ship missile launchers, modified to manage nuclear-tipped anti-submarine weapons, but useless against the inbound jets.

On his darkened fantail below, he saw his two-man Stinger missile team scanning the sky through night vision.

They can’t protect us, he thought. The range is too limited and the targeting too manual.

He stormed forward and reentered the bridge. The air felt dry and hot, and he smelled fearful sweat. Eyes turned to him for hope and guidance.

I must do something, he thought. And there’s only one thing I can do under an air attack–pop chaff.

He labored to decide. Shooting chaff, tiny metallic shards, into the sky may cloud and confuse active missile seekers, he realized, but it may also call undue electronic attention to his otherwise stealthy vessel.

I must do something, he thought. Doing nothing is doing something when it’s the right decision.

He knew that his squadron would need chaff in the open ocean–if it survived this attack and the ensuing trek across a hostile minefield–and it may not have time to replenish its canisters if expended now.

I must do something, he thought. I pray we can reload chaff quickly if we survive this attack.

A vessel that pops chaff and drives away from the metallic cloud gains no defense, he reasoned, and he noticed that his ships were too close together to stop running. They couldn’t pop chaff and stop.

I must do something.

Chaff is useless against heat-seeking weapons, useless against cluster munitions, he reflected.

I must do something.

He stood at his command console and pressed a button to talk to his ships’ captains.

“All patrol craft,” he said, “this is Lei. Pop one chaff canister immediately. Then pop one more canister when you stop at the keep-out zone.”

He looked to his navigator.

“Pop chaff, one canister only,” he said.

The thump reverberated through the soles of his boots, and he looked to his console.

Hazy clouds littered the sky over his fleeing patrol craft. He also noticed eight incoming triangles, confirmed by Keelung as Chinese JH-7 Flying Leopard fighter/bombers, slowing to subsonic speeds to launch their crushing blows.

A swarm of overlapping scarlet triangles, too numerous for Lei to count, signaled incoming anti-ship weapons. Speed leaders from the blue triangles of Standard and Sky Hawk missiles tickled the red menaces, but the complexity and uncertainty of defensive missiles knocking down hostile missiles at rates of closure four times the speed of sound, left him anxious. Ship-killers, inbound vampires from the sky, would slip through the defense.

Lei stepped to the starboard bridge window and grabbed a pair of night vision binoculars from a cradle. He placed the optics to his face, scanned high in the greenish night, and followed bright arcs behind the exhausts of the outbound missiles.

He looked southeast, hoping to glimpse the Chinese Eagle Strike missiles. The inbound ship-killers flew low, concealed below his horizon.

He lowered the optics, clenched his jaw, and prepared to meet his encroaching fate.

 

CHAPTER 18

 

Bright orbs on the horizon caught Lei’s eye as they swelled to a crescendo of pulsating light, flared, and died into darkness.

He checked his monitor in hopes that the harbor’s air defenses had eradicated the saturation attack, but red speed leaders showed surviving hostile missiles. He feared one would to veer towards his ship, mock his puny air defenses, and engulf his crew in a sinking blaze.

The navigator’s shrill voice startled him.

“Five hundred yards from the minefield keep-out zone.”

“Stop the ship,” Lei said. “Pop chaff.”

The ship shuddered with a backing bell, and thunder clapped to the south. He glanced at his monitor before racing off the bridge to the aft superstructure and noticed that three incoming missiles had fanned across the harbor entrance, over the escaping patrol craft.

Beyond his fantail, firecracker strobes peppered the water, and wave tops echoed their anger. Lei recognized the explosions as anti-tank rounds jettisoned from flying warheads, designed to pierce armor and damage multiple dispersed small targets.

He dared to hope that every round would hit water until an ominous beacon carved a semicircle in the blackness. Dark plumes wafted from the silhouette of a patrol craft that rode low in the water.

The air felt moist as his ship slowed, and a thunderclap signaled that another craft absorbed a hit.

“Damage reports, all vessels,” he said. “Report in order.”

Before anyone responded, anti-tank munitions pelted the burning piers, and the blinded frigate to the north erupted under the barrage of two huge anti-ship warheads.

The maelstrom of noise died, and Lei heard his executive officer reporting that his ship had been spared.

“One, no damage.”

The next craft chimed in.

“Two, no damage.”

Lei heard controlled terror in the voice of the next man to speak.

“This is Craft Three. We took a round in our combat control center. Approximately ten casualties, but we have back up combat capabilities and full propulsion.”

“Very well,” Lei said. “Do you need assistance?”

“Negative. The fires are contained.”

Lei swallowed the guilt and sadness of his dead warriors and sought the condition of the rest of his team.

The fourth through sixth ships confirmed they were unscathed, but silence filled the gap where Lei expected to hear from the seventh.

“Go ahead, Seven,” he said.

“One, this is Eight. Seven is burning. I think they took a round in their fuel tanks. It’s bad.”

“Very well,” Lei said. “Six and Eight, head toward Seven to spray water and pick up survivors.”

Golden exhaust flashes from a single-arm launcher outshone the burning harbor, and Lei heard Standard Medium Range missiles roaring overhead.

He watched the surviving frigate, the pier’s dancing flames revealing smoke rising from its multiple wounds, prove it remained in the fight.

Damn it, Lei thought. I forgot the remaining aircraft.

He depressed a button on his headset, switching to his ship’s internal voice circuit.

“Navigator, receive the remaining data reports. I want to know if anyone else has been hit.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Executive officer,” Lei said. “What’s still out there identified as a threat?” he asked.

“All eight remaining enemy aircraft vectored north and are now heading back south at low altitude. The Cheng Kung is engaging them with Standard missiles, but they are too many. I believe they mean to strafe our ranks!”

Lei refocused on the remaining threat. Eight aircraft–minus whatever the frigate could eliminate–were overrunning his squadron. And his ship stood first in line for the beating.

“Navigator,” he said. “I want the Stinger team and the twenty-millimeter gun to bear against the incoming aircraft. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Bring us to a full bell, turn us away from the minefield, and show the intruder a quarter bow aspect.”

Lei’s thighs stabilized him as the ship rolled. He shifted his voice circuit to all ships.

“All units, this is Lei. We are being strafed from the north. All units engage with Stingers and twenty-millimeter guns. Evade in random directions at random speeds. Be unpredictable. Force them to maneuver and adjust fire. Pop chaff and throw off their radar.”

His executive officer told him that the frigate’s Standard missiles had eliminated three of the enemy. Of the survivors, four held their formation while the fifth skimmed the wave tops and vectored toward his ship.

“Range to target?” Lei asked.

“Three miles,” the executive officer said.

Lei stepped to the superstructure’s railing and looked to the Stinger missile team on the fantail. Legs spread, one sailor pressed his eye to launcher optics while holding the weapon on his shoulder. His partner crouched below him, balancing a reload against his thigh.

Lei muted his mouthpiece and screamed.

“Shoot! Damn it! Shoot!”

Light sliced the sky and sketched a curve toward the inbound jet. Lei heard rapid gunfire echoing off wave tops and saw his ship’s gun’s tracer rounds. Retaliatory muzzle flashes popped in the sky, followed by chirps and splashes.

As the splashes became discordant clanging, Lei dropped his belly to the nonskid. As the bullets fell silent, he craned his neck and saw the Stinger missile fall in a ballistic death-dive. He crawled to his knees and saw his Stinger team flattened.

He jumped to the ladder and slid down to the fantail. He darted to his reload man and found him lying motionless with dark holes across his torso. Beside him, his launcher man writhed on the deck, clutching his shin.

A blood-speckled white shard extended through severed skin, and Lei recognized a future amputee. He grabbed the man’s jaw and crouched over his face.

“Can you shoot?” Lei asked.

The man winced and ignored him. Lei released him and grabbed the launcher. He found the reload round, fumbled with it, and then inhaled to clear his mind. The missile slid into the launcher, and he hoisted it over his shoulder as he knelt by his sailor.

“I need you to shoot! Get up!”

Lei curled the sailor forward and stuck his head under his shoulder.

“Up!”

Lei lifted, and the man howled as he stood and dangled mangled flesh. Lei reached for the strap and extended the launcher in front of his partner.

“Take it and shoot!” he said. “Lean on me for support.”

“Yes, captain.”

The man balanced the weapon over his shoulder and pushed his eyes into the optics. Lei heard a violent swoosh and braced against a mild kickback. Rocket exhaust illuminated a trail of smoke.

Lei heard his ship’s gun belching bullets, and he heard new chirps and splashes as his assailant adjusted its flight and targeting. Bullets punctured his ship again, and he dragged his injured sailor to the deck.

Engines whined as the formation of four mainland jets sought the rest of Lei’s squadron. He learned the fate of the fifth jet as he rolled to his side and saw its fiery fuselage plummeting.

He rolled to his hip and adjusted his earpiece.

“Executive officer,” he said. “What’s going on?”

“Sir, the Stinger missile took down the inbound bandit!”

“Excellent,” Lei said. “We can do this!”

“No, sir! Friendly Fighting Falcon aircraft have arrived. They’ve ordered us weapons tight.”

“So be it,” Lei said.

He shifted his frequency.

“All units, this is Lei. Friendly aircraft inbound. Weapons tight! Weapons tight!”

He shifted his frequency once more and asked the executive officer to send the medic to the injured Stinger operator.

He unbuttoned his shirt and twisted it tight while walking to his injured sailor. Wrapping the fabric into a tourniquet, he heard enemy aircraft climb and run from incoming Fighting Falcons. Friendly jets rumbled to the south as they chased away the remnants of the menace.

The sailor looked to Lei.

“What happened, sir? Did we get him?”

“Make no mistake,” Lei said. “You hit him. You fought through your pain and performed your duty with honor. No matter the outcome of this campaign, and whether or not you need a prosthetic to walk again, you will recover in your hospital bed knowing that you are a hero.”

A smile beamed behind a grimace, and the man lay back.

“We can triumph, can we not, sir?”

Lei considered his injured squadron and its mission. The hardest challenges lay ahead, and he disliked his odds.

But he knew men fought beside him with courage and resolve, and he embraced his faith in both the human spirit and a higher power.

“All things are possible,” he said. “We may indeed triumph.”

 

CHAPTER 19

 

Jake Slate had expected sleep in the reclined luxury of first class flight over the Pacific Ocean, but a nagging thought pricked at him from Tokyo to Chicago.

He deplaned and marched through the United Airlines terminal to his connecting gate, but his fuzzy mind sought a resolution to the nagging.

Planning to surprise his wife Linda with his return to Michigan, he realized he had the freedom to take a detour.

Having removed the number of his ex-girlfriend from his phone, he scoured his memory for it. He dialed his best guess, heard an unfamiliar voice, and apologized for the misdial. He tried again and stopped breathing when he heard CIA agent Olivia McDonald.

“Olivia?” he asked.

“Jake? Wow. What’s it been? Two years?”

“Something like that.”

“So,” she asked. “How are you? You’re married, right?”

“Yeah. It’s awesome. I mean, I’m a totally different person. Linda is the center of my life, except, when I’m, well, you know.”

“Doing clandestine things?”

“Yeah. I don’t suppose you know what I’m up to anymore. No more need to know?”

“No more need to know.”

Jake’s stomach tightened as he groped for a segue to request. He backed into a plastic chair and sat.

“Roger and I just got engaged,” she said.

“Roger?”

“The naval intelligence officer I met while, well, doing clandestine things you don’t need to know about.”

“I remember you mentioning him,” Jake said. “That’s great. You sound happy.”

“I am.”

Chains fell from his shoulders as her words released him from the subconscious lingering responsibility he had internalized for her well-being.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“I wanted to know if you can get me time with one of your subjects.”

“I have many subjects,” she said. “You’ll have to be more specific.”

“We would agree that this is your most interesting and challenging subject.”

“You can’t be talking about… really?”

“Yes.”

“Why? You can’t possibly understand him better than the army of psychologists that’s dissecting him.”

“I’m not trying to understand him,” he said.

“Then what?”

“I’m trying to understand myself.”

Tension rose in her voice.

“I can’t just let you see him for fun. There are rules, protocols. I stake my reputation and career on every person I let near him.”

“This isn’t for fun,” he said. “I’m not even sure I want to.”

“Make up your mind,” she said. “I would need to pull strings–especially for you since you’re supposed to be–”

“Dead,” Jake said. “I’m supposed to be dead. But I’m not. I’m alive, and talking to him will help me make sense of things.”

He heard her exasperated sigh.

“Since when did you become a philosopher?” she asked.

“Since I got tired of living to cheat death.”

“Interesting,” she said. “I’ll get you in front of him.”

 

*

Deep in an underground floor of a federal building, a guard escorted Jake down a long corridor of cells holding prisoners behind clear plastic walls.

At the end of the hallway, the guard stopped.

“Here he is. Return to the guard post when you’re through. You’ve dealt with him before, and you know the rules.”

Jake turned to the glass and compared the handsome, lean man seated behind it against his memory. He recognized Hana al-Salem.

Salem lowered his tablet computer to a table, rose from his chair, and walked to the glass.

“You look familiar,” he said. “Have we met?”

“Yeah,” Jake said. “I almost killed you. Had the chance. Didn’t bother.”

Salem’s face lit up.

“I remember you. You and your French friend. You visited me soon after I had been incarcerated here.”

“That’s right,” Jake said.

“You didn’t mention that you were a commando, although I see now that you have the physique and you carry yourself like one.”

“I’m not.”

Salem squinted and studied Jake’s face.

“If I remember our last visit correctly, you took credit for having saved the Bainbridge,” Salem said. “Now you say you almost killed me. That suggests that you were among the commando team that infiltrated my submarine to take it from me. I am confused.”

“It wasn’t your submarine. It belonged to the Israelis.”

“Perhaps we should avoid arguing about the proper stewardship of submarines gifted through guilt by the Germans to a race of people who stole land from its proper inhabitants.”

Jake sat in a plastic visitor’s chair.

“I didn’t come here to argue history.”

“Do you mind if I sit as well?” Salem asked.

“Go ahead,” Jake said. “It’s your cell.”

Salem reclined in a chair that appeared comfortable by Jake’s expectation of prison standards, and his voice came clearly through the ventilation holes in the glass.

“I assume you came here to ask me questions,” Salem said, “but would you be so gracious as to explain how you almost killed me?”

“I was in another submarine with a torpedo headed for you. I shut the weapon off when I realized my friend and the commandos had taken the Leviathan back from you.”

“I see. I hadn’t realized how extensively my good fortune ran that day. First, a commando’s bullet is targeted to wound but spare me, and then you spare the submarine because your friend is aboard it.”

“That’s why I didn’t bother to kill you.”

“I’m glad you didn’t.”

Jake leaned forward, placed his elbows on his knees, and rested his chin in his palms. He cast his gaze to the tile floor and realized he didn’t know what to say.

He felt Salem watching him and sensed his curiosity. Jake blurted out his first thought.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “You hit the world harder than I did, but you couldn’t have been half as pissed off as I was for revenge.”

“In all my interviews with countless experts,” he said, “you are the first to volunteer a personal comparison to my life.”

“I’ll be blunt,” Jake said. “I’m not here to learn about you. I’m here to learn about me.”

Salem’s knuckles turned white on his armrests.

“Fascinating,” he said. “I don’t even know your name.”

“Call me Jake.”

“You will tell me your story then, Jake?” Salem asked.

“Most of it will be cryptic, but you’ll get the point. I only ask that you volunteer the truth in return.”

“Of course,” Salem said, “assuming that you don’t ask me to identify the names of people I’ve already refused to identify. I’ve been pressed for this information many times, and threats to extract it from me by torture have proven idle.”

“I don’t care about any of that,” Jake said.

“What do you care about then?”

Jake pressed his back into the chair as he recognized his jealousy.

“I care about why I fell short trying to do exactly what you did,” he said.

“You certainly didn’t attempt to disable the United States with an electromagnetic pulse attack, did you?”

“No,” Jake said. “But I did steal something powerful, just like you did when you stole the Leviathan. I also intended to do something epic with it.”

“Epic?” Salem said. “You see my actions from my perspective and without disdain. And you do this naturally. I can tell when a psychologist is forcing an effort to gain my perspective, such as the redheaded lady who has been attempting to dissect me.”

“She told you I was coming?”

“Yes. She’s brilliant. I almost find myself willing to trust her, but a deeper part of me knows better.”

Jake shifted in his seat.

“You’ll trust me,” he said.

“Because you have no agenda other than learning about yourself?” Salem asked.

“You’re starting to understand why I’m here.”

“Perhaps. You said you intended something epic. Did you fail?”

“I stopped at the last minute,” Jake said.

“I see. You seem the type of person to succeed when committed. I assume then that you lost your motivation.”

In a flash, doubts of his visit’s appropriateness evaporated. Salem understood him. Better than Renard. Better than anyone. The feeling excited and sickened him.

“I was angry… vengeful… even proud,” he said. “Then I realized that these reasons didn’t justify my actions.”

“I see immediate differences between us,” Salem said, his face darkening. “My motivation was selfless. I sought to shock a nation for the greater sake of the world, and I didn’t care if I lived or died. Because of this, my motivation was solid as bedrock.”

“You’re saying I’m selfish?” Jake asked.

“The evidence supports it, based upon what you have shared with me.”

Jake swallowed the concept as truth.

“So I was selfish,” he said. “Maybe I still am. But I don’t see why I should risk my life for strangers.”

“The most noble purposes involve serving others,” Salem said. “Whether you know them or not is irrelevant. You are the only interviewer I expect to understand why this was the inspiration for my deeds.”

“You called it divine inspiration when I was here last time,” Jake said. “Now you’re calling it servitude.”

Salem stood and approached the glass. His glare surprised Jake and clutched his soul.

“When you can see that these are one in the same, Jake, you will have resolved your inner dilemma.”

 

CHAPTER 20

 

John Brody stormed into Secretary Rickets’ office and slammed the door.

“It’s over,” he said.

Rickets slouched in his chair behind a thick mahogany desk. He appeared wounded but resilient.

“It’s not over,” Rickets said.

“Suao Harbor is on fire. Two frigates are damaged–one a mission kill, the destroyer Ma Kong is on the bottom, and God knows how many patrol craft survived, if any.”

“I know,” Rickets said. “Renard just texted me.”

“You’re making national security decisions based upon an unsecure text from an international criminal?”

“There’s plenty of security protecting my cell phone,” Rickets said. “And he texted me all I need to know with cryptic information.”

Rickets stood and walked around his desk.

“Well?” Brody asked.

“Fourteen or fifteen. Proceeding,” Rickets said.

“That’s it? That’s all he texted?”

“I assume it’s the number of patrol craft that survived the air attack and are available for the egress.”

“Why are we speculating?”

“We don’t have to,” Rickets said. “I just got another text from him. He’s asking for a teleconference.”

Rickets sat in his chair and turned on the monitor.

“Are you going to sit?” he asked.

“I’ll stand,” Brody said.

The screen brought the Frenchman’s visage into form.

“Gentlemen,” Renard said.

“What the hell’s going on?” Brody asked.

“The Chinese launched a surprise anti-shipping attack from the air, but the convoy survived.”

“Define ‘survived’,” Brody said.

“Fourteen vessels are untouched or sustained minor strafing damage. A fifteenth is operational on one diesel engine and will continue on the mission. Two are damaged beyond use without major repairs, and one was sadly lost.”

“Fourteen or fifteen,” Brody said. “Your ranks are dwindling, and you haven’t even started yet.”

“The convoy will survive the minefield with enough integrity to provide anti-submarine coverage at the choke points.”

“You can’t assure that,” Brody said.

“No,” Renard said, “But within a matter of hours I expect to share with you news of our success.”

Brody judged a matter of hours too long for the Seventh Fleet to wait. He excused himself, and as he closed the door to Rickets’ office, he decided to lower his head, charge, and impale his enemy.

He marched through the hallway to give the order to mobilize a strike group in Hawaii to begin steaming towards Taiwan.

 

*

Renard swallowed saliva, accentuating his hunger. The Chinese interruption threatened his hunt, but his resolve remained. He would adapt his tactics to the changing wind, redirect his tracks, and outfox his prey.

“Admiral Brody remains pessimistic,” he said.

Rickets’ image moved with slight latency across the laptop monitor.

“His opinion doesn’t matter,” Rickets said. “All that matters is that you succeed.”

“He had an air about him of quiet defiance.”

“I’ll keep Brody in check.”

“Please do. I fear he may send American ships to places where they could only complicate matters.”

Renard inhaled the calming taste of his cigarette.

“Other than the loss of patrol craft,” Rickets asked, “have you made any adjustments to your plans?”

“Timing has slipped forty minutes as the surviving ships assess damage and regroup, but this is hardly a concern as we have forfeited any element of surprise. The Chinese learned of our egress and have certainly already dedicated every asset to it they see fit.”

“Submarines,” Rickets said.

Renard exhaled smoke into a cloud that rose into the Keelung command center’s high ceiling.

“That’s all they have left other than the aircraft they’ve already expended and the mines they’ve already dropped. Taking a skewed perspective, the Chinese air attack at least proves that they fear the patrol crafts’ capabilities.”

“You can do this without Slate?”

“I’ve planned for it all along.”

Renard glanced over his shoulder at the empty seat from which he would command the Hai Ming submarine. Duty called, and he looked back at the webcam.

“Secretary Rickets,” he said, “I have business to which I must attend.”

“Get it done, Renard. I’ll be watching.”

Renard logged off the laptop and stamped out his Marlboro in a tray.

He brushed by the Taiwanese flag that served as his teleconference backdrop, bringing the panorama of the buzzing control center into view.

Adrenaline carried him across the carpet, and he stopped to look over shoulders at the navigation chart.

Outside Suao Harbor, a complete squadron of F-16 aircraft protected the sky against a potential second wave of assailants.

Fourteen patrol craft formed two columns of seven, their beams separated by a quarter mile with a half mile separating their sterns and bows. A fifteenth, the lead vessel, drifted in front. It pointed toward the minefield, represented by slashed red lines four miles wide inside the twelve-mile territorial boundary.

Within the center of the screen’s focus, a narrow corridor showed green hashes interlaced between the minefield’s lines of red. Renard recognized it as the route the patrol crafts would run.

He recalled that sled-carrying helicopters had cleansed the route with multiple counter-mining runs, but the water remained lethal due to the imperfections of minesweeping and the ability of mines to ignore a preset number of targets before exploding.

The helicopters had fooled five mines into harmless suicides, but he knew that surviving mines may have inched closer to their detonation count with each helicopter pass, while others may have escaped their sleds’ influence.

Based upon the expected density of mines Chinese aircraft had dropped, Renard calculated that four mines remained to threaten the patrol craft. An unknown mix of mines–some lurking below the surface but tethered to the seafloor to prevent drifting to international waters and others resting on the bottom to launch torpedoes–threatened the convoy.

He walked around bodies to his seat. Contemplating restraint, he smelled the room’s thick clouds of cigarette smoke and yielded to his life-threatening habit. He puffed the Marlboro’s tip into an amber glow with an instinctive flip of his gold Zippo lighter.

His finger caressed a mouse wheel, bringing the screen to life. He clicked the memorized Chinese icon that directed an encrypted hailing signal to the western edge of the Philippine Sea.

Awaiting a connection through the fishing vessel to the Hai Ming submarine, he stirred. His translator appeared from nowhere, proving his prowess in finding Renard with impeccable timing.

“Good morning, Mister Renard,” he said.

“Good morning,” Renard said. “Do you have a technician standing by? I doubt I’ll need him, but this is not the moment to be without him.”

“Of course.”

The translator lifted his arm and extended his fingers toward a corner of the command center. The white creases in his crisp white uniform moved with his lithe figure.

Renard stood and noticed four men with technical manuals and electronic diagnostic equipment in the corner.

“I see,” he said. “Out of the way, but ready.”

“Correct.”

Renard turned to his screen and saw Henri’s image looking back at him from the Hai Ming’s control room.

“Can you hear me, Pierre?” Henri said.

“Yes,” Renard said. “Status please.”

“Battery is eighty-five percent. Four drones deployed. I believe you have telemetry data on our location and those of the drones. We track no submerged contacts.”

Renard looked at his console’s upper screen which displayed sonar data from the Hai Ming’s Subtics system.

“I see,” Renard said. “I expect this is the calm before the storm.”

“There already was an air storm,” Henri said. “We heard much of it. I’m encouraged that most of the patrol craft survived, but it is a pity for those we’ve lost.”

“A pity indeed,” Renard said. “Let’s keep alive those who have survived.”

“I intend to, Pierre.”

Renard leaned into his screen.

“Remember one thing, my friend,” he said. “I need data immediately. This is atypical submarine warfare. This is a rapid reaction to the first verification of a hostile vessel. You are an information service. Your torpedoes are all but useless.”

“But they are ready, if needed.”

“I’m sure,” Renard said. “I expect that your first and only piece of targeting data may be launch transients and hostile torpedoes aimed at the convoy. Make sure Antoine distinguishes one torpedo from another and one launching submarine from another. The bearing rates on the torpedoes may be sufficient targeting data, and bearings to launch transients will confirm. Make sure you share your immediate acquisition data on the tactical net.”

“I will Pierre,” Henri said. “And I have a man set up with a headset to press buttons for you at a dedicated console. We are ready.”

Renard puffed from his cigarette and leaned back. He heard a commotion behind him, glanced over his shoulder, and sensed history being set in motion behind him.

“I know you are, my friend,” he said. “Keep the line open, but excuse me.”

He slid his headset off, stood, and faced the navigation chart.

An aura of power and destiny enveloped the small form of Admiral Ye, his radiating cheeks lighting the room. He raised a finger, the room fell silent, and he uttered a command to an officer seated meters from the chart. His words carried restrained power, and the seated officer stirred under Ye’s will.

Lights flashed, a klaxon blared, and pneumatic actuators drove shut every door to the center. Ye barked another order, and an Air Force general beside him announced what Renard assumed was part of a memorized code to authorize the use of nuclear weapons. Three officers, huddled around a console, scribbled as the general spoke. Admiral Ye then vocalized his half of the authorization.

An officer tapped a sequence into a keyboard, informing Taiwan’s armed forces that were authorized to use nuclear weapons within predefined offshore coordinates.

Renard noticed a commander flanked by four armed sentries slide a briefcase–handcuffed to his wrist–onto a flat surface before Ye. Ye stepped aside for the general to punch in his half of the case’s combination, and then he stepped in to finish the sequence.

Ye stared with wonder, hesitated, and then withdrew a sealed, laminated card. He tore it open and let the general read it. The general announced characters followed by a memorized phrase that Renard estimated served as his formal command to launch nuclear weapons. Then Ye spoke, his words crafting a replay of the general’s effort.

A final man in a black suit seemed to slip from shadows and emerge next to the general. Renard recognized him as the Minister of Defense, his face dark under a furrowed brow. The Minister read the characters aloud and declared his concurrence of his nation’s order to use nuclear weapons.

An officer tapped a new sequence into a keyboard, broadcasting unlock codes to the patrol craft.

Renard felt a spark rise within him as the room held its collective breath. The pseudo-nation of Taiwan had just granted the young commander of the patrol craft squadron the trigger to nuclear arms. In the silence, Ye extended his palm toward the chart and uttered a single word.

Renard knew scant words in Mandarin, but he grasped the admiral’s utterance as if it were his native tongue.

He had said ‘begin’.

 

CHAPTER 21

 

Strafing bullets had punctured Lieutenant Commander Lei’s ship, but they missed sensitive equipment, passing through the keel or ricocheting off a steel reduction gear case. His crew had shored up the slow leaks, and welding teams were reinforcing the major wounds.

Through the bridge window, moonlight danced on the glowering wave tops of the Philippine Sea. His grieving for fallen comrades postponed, Lei turned his attention to the dangers of the looming minefield.

As he lowered his chin, the helmet strap under his communications headset tickled his neck, and the monitor’s useless illusion of calmness irked him. Blue triangles patrolled the sky, blue squares filed behind his craft, and inverted triangles marked the Hai Ming submarine and its drones. But unseen perils prowled below the swells.

He tapped a button on his headset.

“All craft, this is Lei,” he said. “It’s time. God protect us. All craft, all ahead flank.”

The ship lurched, and glimmering silver sea spray shot over the bow. While a bridge full of eyes scanned the water through binoculars, Lei focused on his monitor’s overhead rendering of his vessel sprinting toward a minefield’s invisible boundary.

Isolating Lei’s home island, the mainland had dropped mines along the ten-mile curve, leaving a margin of error to prevent stray mines landing outside the twelve-mile international waters limit. The screen showed an additional two miles of landward margin, and he respected the eight-mile curve as his keep-out zone.

He intended to slow at the edge of danger–unless torpedoes forced a desperate evasion. Mainland submarines could reach across the minefield, and he would be blind to the subsurface menaces save for input from a solitary friendly submarine.

He glared at the screen, praying for the Hai Ming to provide him adequate warning.

Via data link, the Hai Ming answered his silent plea and begat his waking nightmare.

Startling him, an inverted red triangle appeared to the northeast. Blood coursed through him, turning fear into action. A second torpedo appeared, and he expected more.

He studied the red lines that predicted the future locations of moving bodies, shifted his weight over the pitching deck, and spoke into his boom microphone.

“Incoming torpedoes to the northeast,” he said. “Crafts One through Three maintain prescribed course and speed. Crafts Four through Nine are at risk. Turn starboard and circle back to the end of the column. Ten and higher maintain course and speed.”

Four more torpedoes appeared, completing a six-torpedo salvo from a hidden mainland submarine.

Is that your full volley? Lei thought. When will the Hai Ming expose you to my wrath?

The deck rumbled through his bones during an otherwise silent sprint.

Where are you? he thought.

His eyes burned, and he blinked moisture into them.

Where are you!

An inverted red triangle appeared on the far side of the minefield.

Thank you, Hai Ming. My turn!

He switched his circuit to his executive officer below in the combat information center.

“Hostile submarine!”

“I see it, sir. Designating submarine as Sierra One. Targeting with Tube One.”

The kill zone for the predicted salvo of nuclear warheads appeared on Lei’s screen, centering on the hostile submarine but tickling the Hai Ming.

“Set warheads three and four to half yield,” he said. “They are threats to the Hai Ming.”

“Setting warheads three and four to half yield, sir.”

The arcs of destruction surrounding two of the missile’s eight warheads shrank, retracting the kill zone.

“Prepare to launch Tube One at Sierra One,” Lei said.

“Tube One is warmed and ready, sir.”

“Shooting Tube One,” Lei said.

He flipped a plastic guard and depressed a button.

A swooshing roar bellowed behind him and reverberated throughout the bridge. Through the side window, a rocket plume sliced the darkness, climbed, and veered north.

He lowered his gaze to see his missile, but new red threats, torpedoes from the southeast, burned onto the console. With crafts four through nine reversing course, a dozen of his ships steamed into the new weapons’ paths.

Another salvo from the north appeared, and Lei recognized a triangulated attack. He had expected a surgical strike, but the mainland had revealed its shotgun approach. Amid the chaos, he changed his plan and ordered a tactical retreat.

“Crafts four through fifteen,” he said, “return to the harbor, flank speed! Race for cover behind the breakwaters! Crafts one through three, continue through the minefield.”

The red character representing the submarine behind the second salvo materialized on his screen.

“Craft three,” he said, “designate the submarine to the south as Sierra Two. Engage Sierra Two with one missile.”

Time stopped for Lei during an eerie quasi-silence where nothing seemed to be happening. He noticed his pulse throbbing through his neck as rocket exhaust lit the night off his starboard beam.

Nuclear weapons in flight, he returned his attention to his overhead tactical view. The screen showed his ship entering the keep-out zone, and he slowed to five knots. As the decelerating deck tipped him forward, he kept his gaze on the monitor.

A blue icon representing the first warhead in ballistic free fall separated from his ship’s missile and etched an X in the display. The flying weapon dived and turned to draw its entrapping octagon around its target. Numbers beside the diving missile ticked downward with altitude.

The executive officer’s voice in his headset confirmed the first warhead’s release.

“Tube One, first warhead deployed.”

A counter on his screen reeled off seconds as the warhead descended. Lei trusted that the missile would release the next seven warheads at lower altitudes so that the points of the inescapable death octagon would detonate at similar times as they reached the preset depth of five hundred feet.

Since the seafloor dropped east of Suao, Lei choose five hundred feet to concentrate the jolting blows and oscillating fireballs upon the submarines while delivering minimal energy to his surfaced crafts. But unavoidable shock waves would ride up the underwater mountain that shouldered Taiwan, and they would hit his small ship.

Preparing for waterborne punches, he optimized his bearing for his ship and the two that flanked him through the minefield.

“Crafts one through three,” he said, “turn to course zero-three-zero.”

He also needed to protect the ships against incoming airborne shock waves and the contamination that the southerly winds would soon carry.

“All ships,” he said, “rig for shock waves and contamination.”

His craft rolled through the turn, and an explosion startled him. He raced to his port window and saw an arcing rainfall of moonlit glistening silver.

Water whipped white by expanding gases cut the blackness and marked the point where a mine had severed Craft Two. The vessel’s sinking silhouetted halves twisted in opposing directions.

As Lei internalized the loss of his comrades, a steel shutter rolled closed outside the window, protecting the bridge from airborne shock and radioactive contaminants. Absent moonlight, the bridge became ghastly red.

Another explosion, distant, thundered. He slid back to his console for understanding, and the dizzying array of crisscrossing lines held no conclusions.

But his executive officer clarified the truth.

“Sir, Ten just reported. Fifteen took a torpedo. Fifteen is lost. They couldn’t evade.”

I ordered Fifteen to continue on this mission, hindered in speed with one diesel offline, Lei thought. I doomed them.

A glance below his chin revealed that his ship’s missile had released all its warheads prior to tumbling into the sea. As the counter tracking the sinking of enriched plutonium reached ten seconds to estimated detonation, he allowed himself a final view of the world prior to entering the tactical nuclear age.

He depressed a button, and his screen showed the view from an infrared camera pointing aft.

The green hue near the harbor showed wakes hitting wakes, suggesting that the bulk of his squadron had evaded torpedoes behind the jetties. Unable to see evidence of the ill-fated Craft Fifteen, he nudged a joystick on his console in search of survivors from Craft Two, less than half a mile behind him, but the sea had swallowed the mine’s victim.

He shifted his view to a forward camera with savage hopes of watching his underwater nuclear attack. The sea appeared calm, but as the seconds reached zero, he sat in a shock-mounted chair, grasped its handrails, and braced for nuclear fury.

 

CHAPTER 22

 

His knuckles white on his chair’s arms, Lei saw the first warhead lift the sea’s surface in the greenish hue of his monitor. The watery protrusion of the sub-kiloton blast impressed him with it smallness, but the shock wave caught him off guard.

Coming from below, the direct path shock lifted the bow. His chair pitched, its solitary base leg dampening the axial and lateral blow. He had left his mouth open, and the impact shut it. He clenched his teeth to stifle a curse as the wave’s reflection off the steep seafloor jolted his ship sideways.

Seven more warheads detonated, and Lei clamped himself to the chair with a death grip. As the last shock passed, he felt catatonic, and he stared at the monitor showing the darkened outside world.

The camera revealed the foggy base surges as shreds of blast energy escaped the water’s surface, rose in hot mist, and expanded outward.

Unsure how a commanding officer should react to self-inflicted blows, he heard himself addressing his bridge crew through his mental mist.

“Any injuries?” he asked.

As heads shook in silence, Lei remembered that the warheads of a second missile would soon explode. He ordered his ship and the flanking Craft Three to turn. Facing south, Lei rode eight more shock waves and their reflections.

When he gathered his thoughts, he realized that the third submarine had appeared on his screen, and he took action.

“Craft Four,” he said, “can you hear me?”

“Yes, sir,” this is Craft Four.”

The response confirmed Lei’s expectations that the seawater had absorbed the electromagnetic pulses. Shipboard electronic communications remained robust.

“Craft Four,” he said, “designate the submarine to the far north as Sierra Three. Engage Sierra Three with one missile, but remain behind the breakwaters while launching. There may still be torpedoes in the water.”

“Craft Three,” he said, “follow me out of this accursed minefield. Course zero-eight-zero. All ahead standard.”

Text acknowledgements appeared on his screen from his ships, keeping his voice line clear for his commands.

“Crafts Four through Fourteen, remain behind the breakwaters until the Hai Ming can give confirmation that hostile torpedoes are no longer running.”

His executive officer spoke with urgency.

“Sir, Keelung demands to speak with you.”

Now? Lei thought.

“Patch them through,” Lei said.

“Lieutenant Commander Lei, this is Admiral Ye.”

“Sir?”

“The hostile submarine to the north, the one you’ve designated as Sierra Three, is surfacing and assumed to be in distress. I’ve taken the liberty of standing down Craft Four’s missile attack on Sierra Three.”

Lei glanced at his monitor and noted Craft Four’s aborted launch sequence.

“I see, sir. What are your orders?”

“You and Craft Three are to take station on Sierra Three. You are to prevent her from raising a communication mast, and you are to prevent her from submerging.”

Lei found himself dumbfounded but hesitated before asking the admiral how to carry out the orders.

“Yes, sir,” he said. “I understand my orders.”

“If she raises a mast, shoot it down,” Ye said. “If she opens her ballast tank vents and you see sea spray, shoot holes in her pressure hull.”

Lei exhaled in relief of the admiral’s clarifications.

“I will see to it, sir.”

“If she takes no hostile action, keep your weapons tight,” Ye said. “The mainland is listening, and we don’t want them to know what we’re about to accomplish.”

“What do you need me to accomplish, sir?”

“Not you,” Ye said. “Helicopters are en route to the submarine. We will board her. Just keep her from submerging or communicating.”

“I understand, sir.”

“You’ll have to pass through the radioactive cloud of mist to reach the submarine quickly.”

Lei glanced at his screen, realized he was clear of the minefield, and agreed with Ye that the southerly wind would blow the radioactivity into his path.

“We’re rigged for contamination, sir,” he said. “I am concerned, however, that our cannons may be unable to penetrate submarine steel.”

“Based upon reports from the Hai Ming,” Ye said, “I doubt you will have to find out. I expect that we will find very few survivors, and I expect that the ones we find will be begging for medical assistance.”

“Craft Three and I are en route now,” Lei said.

“The Hai Ming has confirmed that your warheads have sunk the other two hostile submarines,” Ye said. “And all hostile torpedoes have stopped running. Send the remainder of your squadron through the minefield.”

 

*

The blast-created mist appeared gentle as Lei watched his bow cut through the water at flank speed, but he grasped its man-made danger.

“Do you have radiation levels yet?” he asked.

“Calculating initial levels, sir,” his executive officer said. “They appear to be hazardous for long-term exposure. We will require a salt water spray down.”

As the last contaminated wisp rolled over his bow, he swiveled his camera towards the expected location of the surfaced submarine and saw darkness.

“Train the starboard camera on Sierra Three,” he said.

“Training,” the executive officer said. “We have multiple eyes seeking it.”

Lei scanned the bridge and noted three other sailors looking for the submarine in their monitors.

“Remember that the Hai Ming’s estimate of the submarine’s location is imperfect. It could be off by more than a mile. Submarines work with acoustic data that creates such uncertainty.”

“Shall I illuminate our surface search radar, sir?”

“Restrict your radiation to within thirty degrees relative to the bow. Radiate.”

Lei flipped from his camera view to his radar and saw the return he wanted.

“That’s her,” he said. “Secure radiating.”

He adjusted course five degrees to point toward the submarine, and he flipped his monitor back to its forward camera view. The dark square of a submarine’s sail appeared. As his target grew larger, he noted a bow wake.

“What do you think,” he asked. “They’re not trying to run from us, are they?”

“I doubt it, sir,” his executive officer said. “But I can’t tell you why they are making way.”

Lei approached, and the submarine became clearer.

“That’s a Kilo class, isn’t it?”

“Probably, sir. We’ll know for certain after the boarding parties arrive. They’re five minutes out.”

Lei stationed his ship off the submarine’s beam and matched its course and speed. He kept his twenty-millimeter cannon trained on the sail, but no masts rose.

Instead, the first sign of life came from the forward hatch. It flipped open, and for an eternity, nothing happened. Then a human head appeared, followed by a torso that fell to the deck. Another human figure appeared, pulled itself over the first, and slithered forward, dragging useless legs.

A Blackhawk helicopter appeared from above and hovered over the open hatch. A soldier wearing a forced-air anti-contamination suite and carrying a rifle rappelled from the helicopter. He inspected the crippled mainland sailors for weapons as three soldiers followed him to the steel.

The fire team disappeared into the submarine.

Four more soldiers descended from the helicopter, followed by unarmed men carrying waterproof bags. The second wave of infiltrators slid through the hatch, their weapons over their shoulders.

A second Blackhawk replaced the first and released additional men to the deck. Lei noted that each remained unarmed, and he thought he saw a medical kit.

The bow wake subsided, and Lei swiveled his camera to check that the submarine’s propeller had stopped. Shifting his camera back to the conning tower, he heard welcomed news from his executive officer.

“It’s done, sir. They’ve taken the submarine. We are ordered to clear the area and continue on our primary mission.”

“That seemed too easy,” Lei said.

“We now know what happens when a submerged vessel takes the shock wave broadsides from less than two miles, sir. Even though they were outside the octagon, warhead number two was close enough to do this.”

“Any insight about the possibility of being able to salvage the submarine?”

“Not yet, sir.”

“Perhaps that’s a question that we would be wise to remain ignorant about.”

“Agreed, sir.”

Lei checked his monitor. The remainder of his squadron had cleared the minefield. He shifted his voice to his entire squadron.

“Congratulations on a victorious egress operation,” he said. “We have lost many comrades, and for them we shall mourn at the appropriate time. But now, we must complete our mission and guard the straits.”

He double-checked the numbers in his head.

“Crafts Ten through Fourteen, you are now the Luzon Task Force. Craft Fourteen, you have command of the Luzon Task Force. Head south and patrol the Luzon Strait. All other vessels follow me east.”

Lei tapped a button on his console to bring up a view of the Japanese Ryukyu Island chain. The line showing his nation’s undersea hydrophone array gave him hope.

He faced a challenge covering all mainland submarine passages between the islands, but he expected that his squadron would succeed in placing the Philippine Sea under his navy’s control and making it safe for the merchant shipping his nation would need to endure.

 

CHAPTER 23

 

The base at Qingdao a days-old memory, Dao Chan sniffed the stolen North Korean Romeo’s cramped confines. His recollection of the East China Sea’s moist salted aroma had yielded to the dry metallic taste of carbon dust from rotating electrical machines.

His executive officer ducked through the forward door, brushed by seated sailors, and overpowered the staleness with the stench of rancid meat and formaldehyde.

“A bag is leaking in the torpedo room,” he said. “I’ve already ordered the body moved to a spare bag.”

“That’s the proper action, Gao,” Chan said. “Have you yet determined if the leak was due to a failure in the bag or by an accidental tearing?”

“I’ve not yet made that determination, sir.”

Chan doubted that Gao had recognized the importance of the distinction.

“If the bags are failing due to a design flaw,” Chan said, “then we face a problem of limited replacement bags and preservation fluid. If a sailor tore the bag by accident, we must seek a better way to stack the bodies out of the way.”

“Yes, sir.”

Gao appeared defeated. Chan dismissed him with a nod and a stern index finger toward the door.

He turned his gaze to the chart and watched the lighted crosshair walk under translucent tracing paper. His ship appeared alone in the sea, but he realized that maintaining his ten-knot pace kept him deaf to his surroundings. If a capable submarine were trailing him, it did so as a ghost.

As he approached the Ryukyu Islands, penciled arcs proclaiming Japan’s twelve-mile national water boundaries pinched down on him. He checked his ship’s bearing to verify that he drove between Yakushima to the north and Kuchinoshima to the south. He intended to grab another satellite fix to assure his location prior to violating a sovereign nation’s water.

A line paralleling the island chain represented the expected location of a Taiwanese undersea surveillance array. The system’s sensitivity remained an unknown since the Taiwanese had restrained their reaction to detections of any submarines, but Chan expected the system to be online and listening, and the lack of orders warning him to slow while passing over the hydrophones concerned him.

Either his faceless masters assumed the Taiwanese system to be offline, his stolen Romeo its hopeless victim at any speed, or worse. He entertained thoughts of being expendable–perhaps a decoy for a larger operation.

He quelled defeatist thoughts by reminding himself of an evacuation plan that included leaving the submarine burning on the surface with its former crew’s charred corpses aboard. Planted evidence of North Korean misdeeds, he assumed.

Plus he had drafted the son of a ranking party member to his team. Gao, despite his mediocrity, shielded him from expendability.

Startling him, his executive officer appeared.

“Sir,” Gao said. “The torn body bag resulted from a sailor slicing it with wire wrap. He confessed to dragging the wire accidentally across the bag while he was en route to locking a valve stem. He said he inspected the bag and didn’t notice any leaks, but he must have weakened the bag to begin a slow leak.”

“Or he was in too great a hurry to correctly assess the damage,” Chan said. “He was certainly in too much a hurry to properly carry his wire wrap.”

“I shall see that he is disciplined,” Gao said.

“Better yet,” Chan said, “let him explain his errors to the entire crew so that they recognize the hazards of careless haste.”

Gao’s eyes widened.

“The shame,” he said.

“See to it, Gao,” Chan said. “My methods are effective. Each sailor will think twice before compromising what little capability this submarine has.”

“Yes, sir.”

Gao departed, and Chan returned his attention to the chart. Running his finger between the Japanese islands and over the Taiwanese hydrophone array, he considered his speed options.

He could slow and try to sneak over the arrays unnoticed, or he could concede being heard and attempt to pass at high speed to the eastern side of the islands. A flash of inspiration told him to go as fast as his submerged Romeo would take him–an anemic thirteen knots–and put the issue behind him.

 

*

His grip tight around the handles, Chan staggered and arched back from the periscope. Swells bucked the Romeo to the side, and the submarine plummeted.

“The head valve has shut,” Gao said. “The diesel engines have secured.”

Chan looked down to his executive officer who braced for balance by the navigation chart.

“Get us back up,” Chan said. “One meter shallower than before.”

“You’re risking exposure of our conning tower, sir.”

Chan suppressed an impulse to chastise Gao for challenging him and welcomed his underling’s courage to voice an independent thought.

“You’re right, Gao,” he said. “But that’s a risk I must take. We need air, we need to charge our battery, and we need a geographic fix. Get us up.”

*

The Romeo’s battery charged and its air clean, Chan felt the rocking subside as the deck angled downward. He slid by a polished railing to join Gao by the navigation chart.

At the narrowest point of the strait, the twelve-mile curves surrounding the Japanese islands crossed. He realized that his would be the first Chinese crew to violate Japanese sovereignty during the campaign to reclaim the renegade Taiwanese province.

Projecting battery depletion curves in his mind’s eye, he jabbed one end of dividers into the trace paper and spread the other across the track he would drive through the Tokashi Strait. He grunted as he lifted spread pointers and placed them on the scale to measure the distance to the island chain’s far side and the Pacific Ocean’s Philippine Sea.

“Our battery won’t support it,” he said. “Not at maximum speed. Not even at twelve knots.”

“Sir?” Gao asked. “I think the battery curves would support twelve knots.”

“You’re correct, assuming a clean hull and new battery cells. But we’ve seen that we perform less than optimum in both areas. We must get closer to the center of the strait before accelerating.”

“Perhaps we should just remain slow throughout the transit to avoid detection,” Gao said.

“No, Gao. I understand the trade-offs, but I desire to violate Japanese waters for the smallest amount of time as possible. We stay at four knots for the next hour. Then, we accelerate and take our chances.”

 

*

An hour later, Chan checked his chart.

“All ahead flank,” he said. “Make turns for twelve knots.”

The submarine shook while laboring. Human noise ebbed in the control room, save for an occasional cough and clearing of a throat while the Romeo passed over the suspected Taiwanese hydrophone array.

As the crosshair passed over the array’s line, Chan noticed the tight, arc-sided triangular intersection between the Japanese territory boundaries and the Taiwanese hydrophone system. For a moment, he violated one neighbor’s waters while exposing his acoustic presence to the hostile renegade province.

His fears chided him into speculating that he undertook a suicide mission. Though he conceived no strategic value in his demise, a skilled politician may have arranged the sinking of his North Korean submarine in Japanese waters to forward an agenda beyond Chan’s sight.

He swallowed as the submarine reentered international waters and slipped into the Pacific Ocean. As he reached his desired distance from the strait, he relaxed his grip on the navigation table.

“Slow to four knots,” he said.

“We have thirty percent battery, sir,” Gao said.

“Excellent. Take us to snorkel depth and charge the battery. Get a fix and seek new radio traffic. I’ll be in the engineering spaces.”

Chan walked aft toward the engine room and passed a whirring propulsion motor, sealed reduction gears, and the length of the starboard shaft. Surrounded by duct tape, extension cords, and laptops on plywood shelves, a lone sailor crouched over a computer.

Chan crouched beside his cryptology ace.

“How’s your progress?” he asked.

Color flush in his cheeks, the sailor looked up.

“Good news, sir,” Park said.

“You see evidence of our rescue ship?”

“That’s not what I meant, sir, but I am breaking the codes to the seven ships you thought might be serving as our rescue ship. I expect to start reading their messages in about eighteen hours, on average, as I break each code. I can go faster on select ships if you let me work my algorithms in parallel.”

“No,” Chan said. “That’s fine.”

A younger sailor walked to Chan.

“Sir, the executive officer reports no new message traffic and requests permission to descend from snorkel depth when the batteries are charged.”

“Permission granted,” Chan said.

The sailor departed.

“This leaves you with no new data,” Chan said.

“That’s okay, sir,” Park said. “That’s the good news. I’m confident I can predict the behavior of the random-number-generating algorithms used by the computers behind the broadcast messages we’re interested in.”

“You’re certain?”

“Just minutes ago, I cracked the code for an East Sea Fleet Kilo submarine, hull three-six-six.”

“Show me.”

Park twirled his laptop, and Chan devoured a secret message intended for his compatriot. The news astounded him.

“The Kilo is also heading to the eastern side of the Japanese islands.”

“I didn’t recognize the numbers as coordinates, sir.”

“That’s what they are,” Chan said. “Whatever our mission, we are part of something greater. We are not alone.”

“That’s encouraging. Right, sir?”

“Yes, Park,” Chan said. “Can you break more of these, for other submarines?”

“Of course. It’s just a matter of time.”

“What about that garbled text?”

Chan pointed at the screen.

“It’s a third layer of encryption. Probably a brief note for just the commanding officer.”

“Can you break it?”

“That would exhaust my resources,” Park said.

“Can you break the second layer for the East Sea Fleet submarines first and then break the third layer for the one that will be stationed closest to us?”

“I can, sir, if you let me know which one will be the closest to us.”

“Consider it done, Park,” Chan said. “as soon as I know.”

As he walked forward, he thought he heard an unfamiliar low-frequency drone. The sound perplexed him, and he flagged his memory to ask his executive officer to check the ship for a sound short. There would be disciplinary action if a sailor had left a tool connecting a loud machine to the hull, bypassing sound isolation mounting.

His eyes wide, Gao met him at the navigation chart.

“Sir, active intercept, two hundred hertz.”

“No ship uses a sonar frequency that low,” Chan said.

“I know, sir.”

“Do you have a bearing?”

“It’s vague, sir. At best within ten degrees, it’s roughly coming from the west. We’re also catching reflections from the southwest at lower power.”

“Reflections from what, Gao?”

“That’s the problem, sir. There’s nothing out there for the sound to reflect from, unless there’s a nearby submarine.”

“Draw the bearings on the chart, Gao. Include the reflections.”

Chan watched his underling brush a pencil over trace paper. An idea formed in his mind, but he hesitated to vocalize it–until he heard the active broadcast again.

“There it is again, sir,” Gao said.

“Same bearings?”

“Same bearings, sir.”

“Secure snorkeling and take us deep,” Chan said.

Chan tapped his fingers on the chart, pondered the incoming sounds, and waited for Gao to reappear.

As the deck leveled, he grabbed a pencil and drew hard lines over the Taiwanese hydrophone system.

“What are those, sir?” Gao asked.

“These are my best estimates,” Chan said, “of the newly discovered Taiwanese active-emission sonar hydrophone array.”

“Active-emission, sir? You think that we’ve not only verified the existence of the Taiwanese hydrophone array, but we’ve learned that it includes an active transmission?”

“Yes, making secret passage over its length nearly impossible,” Chan said. “And this also implicates the Japanese beyond doubt as providing a power source.”

“What do we do, now, sir?”

Chan stepped up to the conning platform and sat in his foldout captain’s chair.

“We clear out of here, pray nobody follows us, and share what we know with the fleet if we survive long enough to do so.”

CHAPTER 24

For the first time, Pierre Renard wished he had been aboard a surface combatant instead of a submarine. He had built the consensus, drafted the plans, and brokered the weapons transactions, but young men on small patrol craft had faced the mortal danger in carrying out his vision, and they had prevailed.

His adrenaline had spiked and then fallen after feeding the egressing squadron the spying Hai Ming’s undersea information. Lifting an unlit cigarette to his lips, he glanced at his console to verify his visual connection with Henri. Crouched in his seat, his countryman rested his sweaty hair in his hands awaiting orders from Keelung.

Renard left Henri unperturbed and stepped to the navigation chart to learn progress aboard the captured mainland Kilo submarine. Admiral Ye’s staff buzzed around the command center churning stolen encryption codes into cracked intercepted mainland message traffic. As an officer rendered his report to Ye and departed, Renard approached his client.

“What have you learned, my friend?” he asked.

“Not as much as I would hope,” Ye said. “We’ve taken their radio modules for inspection, and the photographs and videos show what we would expect from a Kilo submarine. The cryptology data lets us read East Sea Fleet message traffic, but there’s at least one more layer of encryption required to learn the location of their ships.”

“But with focused hacking,” Renard said, “and if the mainland doesn’t know the fate of its submarine for days…”

Ye raised his palm.

“I know what you’re thinking, but I’m afraid the Kilo sustained too much damage. We cannot take it for our own use, and we cannot keep it afloat much longer. I’ve ordered it to be scuttled within thirty minutes.”

“Before dawn,” Renard said. “Before the sun burns away cloud cover and exposes the submarine to the mainland’s surveillance by reconnaissance aircraft and military satellite.”

“Yes,” Ye said. “Not to mention civilian spies on our coast. Military police patrol the highest floors of buildings near Suao, and helicopters search the nearby mountains to verify nobody is watching, even now to thwart those who would spy with night vision.”

An officer approached, and Renard stepped away. As the officer departed, he moved back to Ye.

“You seem perplexed,” he said.

“We’ve received a download of their tactical system,” Ye said. “Four of their reload weapons are North Korean.”

“You mean of a design they would export to North Korea?” Renard asked.

“No,” Ye said. “North Korean. They are from North Korea, including North Korean inscriptions and manufacturing data. The infiltration team verified this in the torpedo room.”

“Good God, man,” Renard said. “I could only begin to speculate the implications.”

“Hold on,” Ye said.

He barked in Mandarin, and an officer nodded and scurried to a table where analysts sifted through incoming screens of data from the captured submarine.

“I told him to expedite the review of the contents of the captain’s safe,” Ye said. “They blew it open for a reason. There’s bound to be something insightful inside.”

“I should hope so,” Renard said.

His phone vibrated, surprising him. He withdrew it from his blazer and checked the caller identification.

“Of all people,” he said. “Excuse me, admiral.”

Renard placed the phone to his ear as he walked toward the solitude of his webcam and laptop in the corner of the command center.

“Yes, Jake,” he said. “It’s good to hear from you.”

“You, too, Pierre,” Jake said. “Is now a good time?”

“Why not? We’ve just entered the tactical nuclear age, and my plans are proving bulletproof! I doubt you’ve called to let me boast, but if you’ll allow it…”

“Go ahead,” Jake said. “It would help my guilt.”

“I wish I could,” Renard said. “But on second thought, you’re calling from your unsecure line.”

“Yeah. Right. Well, I didn’t call to say much. I just wanted to apologize.”

“I don’t think you owe me such a gesture.”

“I’ve been selfish,” Jake said.

Renard pondered the years he had known his conflicted protégé.

“I think you had your requisite opportunity for personal growth stolen from you in your early adulthood, and you’re just late to reach a developmental crossroads. Your behavior is normal. But if you feel that you’ve wronged me, I forgive you.”

“I left you when you needed me,” Jake said. “I need to make it up to you.”

“Very well,” Renard said. “I disagree with your harsh self-assessment, but I accept that you feel an obligation. I therefore promise to recruit you for my next opportunity. You know there will be one.”

“Well, sure. Thanks, Pierre.”

“Why don’t you head home and–”

The air moved, and Renard felt a presence. He turned and saw an eager expression on his translator.

“Mister Renard. Alarming news.”

Renard covered the phone.

“Yes?”

“The mainland means to attack an incoming American aircraft carrier with a wolf pack of submarines.”

“You jest. There’s no incoming American carrier.”

“The mainland seems to know more than we do about such a movement.”

“Even if a carrier were coming,” Renard said, “mainland diesel submarines are too slow to give chase. They’d need to know the carrier’s path well in advance.”

The translator lifted his nose and appeared agitated for the first time in Renard’s memory.

“I will complete a written translation of the Kilo captain’s patrol orders for you, but you will have to trust me in the meantime that this is an accurate summary.”

“Very well,” Renard said. “I shall take it on faith while you translate and while Admiral Ye’s staff verifies the accuracy of the documents. They could be a ruse to protect against this sort of captured vessel situation.”

“I doubt it, Mister Renard.”

“Why?”

“The attack will be made to appear as if the North Koreans were responsible.”

“This all sounds preposterous. There must be a better explanation for the Kilo captain’s orders and for the Korean weapons on board.”

“The Kilo’s captain did not survive. Very few sailors did, and no officers. There is nobody worth questioning.”

“Then what more evidence is there?” Renard asked.

“There’s a possible North Korean submarine involved.”

“The Romeo that crossed the hydrophone array from the north?” Renard asked. “The loud one we thought was from the mainland’s North Sea Fleet being sent to the Philippine Sea as a distraction?”

“Yes. Very likely. We’re reviewing the acoustic data, now that there is increased interest.”

“Thank you,” Renard said. “Will you excuse me?”

As the translator nodded and turned, Renard’s scheming mind entered hyper-drive. He placed his phone to his cheek.

“Jake, please find your way to an airport and prepare to make for Tokyo.”

“Seriously? What’s going on?”

“Perhaps nothing. But there’s a chance I may need you much sooner than I could have anticipated.”

His protégé sounded relieved and eager.

“I’m on it,” Jake said.

Renard returned his phone to his pocket and reached for his lighter. He released it and congratulated himself for invoking willpower. Gathering what thoughts he could, he turned the corner and headed for Admiral Ye.

As he rounded the navigation chart, Ye surprised him with an invitation that felt like an order.

“Will you join me in my office?”

 

*

Renard judged Ye’s office on the second floor of the center austere by Asian standards, but he appreciated that Ye would dedicate the space to function at the expense of flair.

Small stacks of papers cut sharp lines behind the admiral on a maple bureau. A model of the Hai Lang submarine, the admiral’s last command at sea, stood as the sole attempt to personalize the room. Ye lifted a porcelain teacup from his desk, sipped from it, and lowered it.

“Tea, Mister Renard?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

Ye reached for a pot and poured as steam rose. When finished, he slid the silver platter to the Frenchman. Renard sipped warm bitterness.

“We have an issue with Admiral Brody,” Ye said.

“It appears there is conjecture about an incoming American aircraft carrier, a mainland submarine ambush, and a North Korean angle to complicate matters.”

“It’s more than conjecture,” Ye said. “Unless we’re victims of an elaborate hoax, we’ve stumbled upon an intelligence coup. We can’t prove that all of it is true, but we can verify the first major assumption.”

“The aircraft carrier?”

“Yes.”

“If he’s indeed sending a carrier,” Renard said, “then that will lend credence to the speculation that the mainland is preparing to ambush it.”

“I’ve requested an audience with him. We’ll be connected soon.”

Ye aimed his fingers at a monitor on his wall.

“How much of your newfound data are you willing to share with him?” Renard asked.

“It will depend on his demeanor,” Ye said. “If he is candid, I will be candid.”

“What’s the status of the Kilo?”

“Scuttled. Prior to sunrise.”

“Silently?”

“All doors and hatches were open on the way down,” Ye said. “So it was done as quietly as such a thing can be.”

“Have you sent a bogus signal to the mainland pretending to come from the Kilo?”

“Yes,” Ye said. “We sent a situational report stating that the other two ships–a Song and a Ming–were destroyed by tactical nuclear warheads and that only two patrol craft had been sunk.”

“You sent the message from the doomed Kilo itself?”

“Yes, and we received a standard reply. We later intercepted orders telling the Kilo to continue on its mission with respect to the American carrier.”

As Renard’s mind teased him with scenarios based upon knowing the mainland’s plans, one of Admiral Ye’s staff appeared on the monitor. After Ye held a brief exchange of words, Admiral Brody appeared.

“Good evening Admiral Brody,” Ye said.

“Good morning Admiral Ye,” Brody said. “I see you’ve ushered in the tactical nuclear age.”

“As promised.”

“How is the fallout?”

“Minimal and confined to the sea, as expected.”

“You requested my time, Admiral Ye,” Brody said. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m curious about your plans of sending your naval power near my homeland.”

“I always share my plans with you as a courtesy,” Brody said. “At least when I deem it relevant.”

“Would you deem it relevant to tell me if you were sending the Reagan strike group from Hawaii?”

Brody frowned.

“I can send the Reagan strike group anywhere I want without telling anyone, as long as I honor international boundaries. But you didn’t call me to discuss hypotheticals, Admiral Ye. What are you getting at?”

“There’s a lot of water between Hawaii and my homeland,” Ye said. “You may think you can move a carrier strike group in secrecy, and normally you can. However, you’ve been defeated in areas where you didn’t know you had vulnerabilities.”

“I’m not following.”

“The mainland has studied your personality and your tendencies,” Ye said. “They believed with enough fervor that you would be an aggressor, no matter what policy the president or his cabinet chose. They predicted that you would send major resources to the region.”

“Even if they were right, how is that a defeat?”

“They’re defeating you in cyberspace,” Ye said. “They have access to your communication network, and they know that you’re sending the Reagan strike group here, along with an amphibious landing force.”

“If your intent is to make accusations,” he said, “we have little else to discuss.”

Ye stood, withdrew a note card from his breast pocket, and walked to the monitor. He raised the card to the camera eye.

“I have intercepted intelligence from the mainland that the Reagan is roughly here, at these coordinates.”

“This would prove nothing, even if it were accurate.”

Ye moved to his desk, lifted a pile of papers, and returned to the monitor.

“Then perhaps this does,” he said.

As he raised the papers, Brody’s face became ashen.

“Those are my orders to the Reagan strike group. Where the hell did you get those?”

“We forced a mainland Kilo class submarine to surface,” Ye said. “This came from the commanding officer’s safe. Also on that submarine was a plan for a multi-submarine wolf pack attack against the Reagan.”

“They wouldn’t succeed. They wouldn’t risk an act of open war.”

“Submarines only, Admiral Brody,” Ye said. “Plausible denial of participation.”

“Plausible denial? Who else would possibly be held accountable?”

“North Korea. We found North Korean weapons on the Kilo, and a North Korean submarine is involved.”

“We tracked a surfaced Romeo class submarine through the East China Sea,” Brody said.

“We heard it pass over our hydrophone array,” Ye said.

“So are you suggesting that I back off and let you stick with your plan of securing the Philippine Sea with an underwater hydrophone system and a squadron of nuclear-armed patrol craft? Just because of a few submarines and cyber-hackers.”

“Yes,” Ye said.

“No!” Renard said.

Ye returned to his desk, sat, and appeared quizzical.

“I was wondering why you were so quiet,” Brody said.

“Now that we’ve established an understanding, I thought we may now discuss how to make use of this knowledge from the captured Kilo.”

“I’m listening, Renard,” Brody said.

“The mainland doesn’t know that we have this information, and they don’t know yet that they’ve lost their Kilo. Nor to do they know the Hai Ming survived the attack at its submarine pen. I recommend that the Hai Ming masquerade as the Kilo and continue on the mission per the mainland’s plans.”

“You would use the Reagan as bait?” Brody asked.

“Why not?” Renard said. “We have every advantage, and its fate in absence of this conversation would be no better than any plan I can concoct. Better to be bait in an encounter of our own design than to be the unwitting victim of an ambush.”

“I could use a different form of communications to send the Reagan a different way,” Brody said. “But, if I continue with the status quo, what’s the upside?”

Brody’s interest encouraged Renard. He sensed appreciation for having exposed the ambush.

“You will use disinformation that resembles the truth enough to set a believable trap but differs from the truth enough to protect your assets.”

“I get it,” Brody said. “There are many ways we could go with that approach.”

“If you will permit me to run my thoughts by Admiral Ye, we will soon share with you a plan to destroy every mainland submarine east of Taiwan, set the Chinese fleet back ten years, sanitize the Philippine Sea for the American fleet to steam at will, and take a towering upper hand for negotiating cessation of these hostilities.”

Brody nodded.

“That’s interesting,” he said. “But what if I’m hesitant to risk the Reagan?”

“Don’t worry, Admiral Brody,” Renard said. “My plans will address that concern, and I’m apparently on a run of good luck in this region of the world.”

 

THE END

About the Author

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1991, John R. Monteith served aboard a nuclear ballistic missile submarine and as a top-rated instructor of combat tactics at the U.S. Naval Submarine School. Since his transition to civilian life, he has continued to pursue his interest in cutting-edge technology. He currently lives in the Detroit area, where he works in engineering when he’s not cranking out high-tech naval action thrillers.

John R. Monteith writes the award-winning Rogue Submarine series:

 

ROGUE AVENGER (2005)

ROGUE BETRAYER (2007)

ROGUE CRUSADER (2010)

ROGUE DEFENDER (2013)

ROGUE ENFORCER (2014)

ROGUE FORTRESS (2015)

ROGUE GOLIATH (2015)

ROGUE HUNTER (2016)

ROGUE INVADER (2017)

ROGUE JUSTICE (2017)

If you enjoyed this novel, please leave a positive review and Contact John Monteith.

Try the next book of the Rogue Submarine series:

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  • Author: John R. Monteith
  • Published: 2017-09-15 02:35:16
  • Words: 45541
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