Read an Excerpt
JULY 25, 2003
Judgment Day came without warning.
Captain First Rank Dmitri Losenko sipped tea from a warm ceramic mug as he updated the ship's log in the privacy of his stateroom aboard the Delta IV nuclear submarine K-115. His lean, hawk-like features were clean-shaven. Strands of silver had begun to infiltrate his short brown hair. Medals and insignia gleamed upon his dark blue uniform. Shrewd gray eyes focused intently on his work.
His personal quarters were as trim and impeccably organized as the man himself. Steam rose from the brass samovar resting on his desk. Polished wood paneling covered steel bulkheads. The cotton sheets of his bunk were fitted and folded with the careful precision and attention to detail that life aboard a submarine demanded.
A multifunction display screen, mounted adjacent to the bunk, allowed him to check on the sub's tactical status at a glance. A dog-eared copy of War and Peace awaited his leisure. As a loyal officer in the new Russian Navy, Losenko had commanded this vessel for more than a year now. He liked to think that he was prepared for both war and peace-and that he played a vital role in preserving the latter.
It was a routine watch aboard K-115, christened the Gorshkovafter the father of the modern Russian Navy. 150 meters below the frozen surface of the Barents Sea, the sub patrolled silently, bearing its deadly cargo of ballistic missiles. For nearly twenty years, through the Cold War and beyond, K-115 and the rest of the Northern Fleet had held its fire, always returning to port without unleashing thermonuclear hell upon the world.
Alone in his cabin, Losenko had no expectation that this mission would end otherwise. He looked forward to returning to his dacha outside St. Petersburg after another successful run. The countryside was beautiful in the summer. A squawk from the intercom disturbed his reverie. Losenko put down his tea and plucked the microphone from its cradle. A black plastic cord-kept scrupulously free of tangles-connected the mike to the speaker system.
“Captain's quarters,” he said brusquely, his voice deep. “What is it?”
The voice of Alexei Ivanov, his executive officer, or starpom, escaped the mike.
“Captain. We've received an urgent communication from Fleet Command.”
Losenko arched an eyebrow.
“I'll be right there.”
Abandoning his logbook, the captain rose to his feet. His black leather boots resounded against the steel deck plates as he strode down the corridor. Unlike a surface ship-subject to the choppy motion of the waves-the submarine's deck remained steady and level beneath his feet. If not for the constant thrum of the ship's engines in the background, there was little indication that the vessel was moving. Cables and conduits grew like ivy over the bulkheads. The freshly scrubbed air was a comfortable twenty degrees Celsius. A double hull shielded him from the black, frigid water outside the sub. As always, he found comfort and pride in the efficiency and reliability of the machine he commanded.
What does Moscow want now? he fretted. Worry furrowed his brow. I was not expecting any new orders.
A brisk march brought him quickly to the central command post, which lay only one compartment aft of the officers' quarters. As he entered, his ears were instantly assaulted by emergency alert signals which reverberated from the radio shack just beyond the command center. At best he could only pick out random words and phrases erupting from the speakers.
Rows of illuminated instruments, gauges, and control panels lined the walls of the compact chamber, which was roughly the size of the kitchen in a small Moscow apartment. Two cylindrical periscopes, one optical, the other electronic, rose like bolted metal pillars from the center of a raised platform overlooking the control room. Alert submariners manned their posts, their postures straightening somewhat upon the captain's entrance. Striped black shirts could be glimpsed beneath their dark blue jumpsuits.
Toward the bow, the diving officer stood watch over the helmsmen as they operated the planes and rudder by manipulating a pair of large steering wheels. A digital depth display confirmed that the ship was currently at 150 meters below the ice. A fathometer measured the remaining distance to the ocean floor.
“Captain in CCP,” the chief of the watch announced over the nearby din.
Captain Second Rank Ivanov surrendered the conn to Losenko, who joined the younger officer on the periscope pedestal. A fit young man with slick black hair, striking violet eyes, and the face of a poet, the first officer was sometimes teased by his peers for his matinee-idol good looks. Ivanov thrust a paper printout at his commander. His bearing was suitably professional, but Losenko knew his young protege well enough to catch the tension in his voice. The captain realized at once that something was seriously amiss.
“This arrived via ELF,” Ivanov announced.
The Gorshkovboasted a loop antennae in its sail capable of receiving extra low frequency radio messages even as the vessel traveled at great depths. Losenko quickly scanned the communique-and his heart skipped a beat. Despite his training and experience, he had to resist an urge to grab onto a railing to steady himself.
Printed in stark black and white, the words before him were every commander's worst nightmare.
And a death sentence for the world he knew.
According to the printout, the United States of America had just done the unthinkable: they had launched their entire nuclear arsenal at their rivals throughout the world. Even as Losenko examined the message once more, letting his disbelieving eyes confirm that he had read the decoded report correctly, the American missiles were in the air, en-route to targets in Russia, China, and the Middle East.
Moscow had authorized immediate retaliation.
No, he thought numbly. There must be some mistake. He lifted his shocked gaze from the paper, and spoke in a low growl. “Has this been verified?”
Ivanov nodded grimly. Deputy Commanders Pavlinko and Zamyatin stood by, clutching the latest code packets. The seals of the packets were freshly broken.
“The codes are in order,” Ivanov said. “The message is authentic.”
The man's voice was taut. Standing at attention, he fairly vibrated from the strain of keeping his emotions under control, like a pressure hull on the verge of buckling. Losenko knew he had to be thinking of his wife and daughter back in Ukraine. The daughter, Nadia, had just turned twelve....
“Very well, then.” He clamped down on his mounting sense of horror, relying on years of training and discipline to hold himself together. Both his crew and his homeland were depending on him now; he would not let them down in their darkest hour. “We have our duty.”
Time was of the essence. While he had been sipping tea, World War III had begun, and the enemy had already fired the first salvo. For all he knew, K-115 was already a target. American aircraft and attack subs were surely hunting them, determined to prevent the Gorshkov from retaliating.
“Ascend to firing depth,” he barked, his orders quickly echoing along the chain of command. “Initiate launch procedures.”
The Gorshkov was armed with sixteen liquid-fueled missiles, each one equipped with four independently targetable warheads. Every warhead was capable of generating at least 100 kilotons of explosive force. Translated into human terms, K-115 could kill almost eight million people and injure many millions more. The Second World War would be considered a mere skirmish by comparison.
Can any man live with so many deaths on his conscience? Losenko pondered. Can I?
The deck tilted upward toward the bow as pumped air displaced water in the ballast tanks. Years of experience aboard both ballistic and attack subs allowed Losenko to keep his balance during their rapid ascent. His boat could set loose its lethal birds from underwater, but only from a depth of fifty-five meters or less. The frozen ice cap would offer no barrier to his missiles. With a range of over 6,000 kilometers, the missiles could reach their targets even from the Arctic.
The captain considered his crew. Glancing around, he noted furtive glances exchanged between the men crammed into the control room. Despite-or perhaps because of-the hushed voices of the officers, he knew the crew had to be aware that this was no ordinary maneuver. The tight quarters of a submarine allowed few secrets, while the commotion from the radio shack was impossible to ignore. He took hold of a hanging mike.
“Put me through to all hands.”
He took only a moment to organize his thoughts before addressing his entire crew.
“This is your captain speaking,” he began, his voice steady. “Make no mistake. This is not a drill. The moment for which we have long been prepared has come round at last. Our nation is at war, attacked without explanation by an enemy who cannot be allowed to strike with impunity at the Motherland. What is asked of us now is no easy task, but this is what we have trained for, what our nation and people demand of us in this terrible hour. I fully expect every man on this vessel to do his duty.” He swept his stern gaze over the anxious sailors under his command.
“All hands, combat stations.”
Losenko released the mike. He faced his officers.
“Instruct Sonar to be on the alert for enemy vessels. I want to be informed at once of any contacts.” The men relayed his message across the conn. “Mr. Ivanov, plot an evasive course to begin immediately after the release of our weapons.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” his XO replied. Launching their missiles would instantly signal their location to the enemy. They would have to strike quickly, then retreat at full speed. Ivanov consulted a notebook filled with combat strategies. Anger seethed in his voice. “Those sons of bitches won't catch us with our pants down.”
The next several minutes were like a nightmare from which Losenko could not wake. Top-secret codes were transmitted directly from Moscow, and once they were employed, the procedure for launching a nuclear attack was as tightly scripted and choreographed as a Bolshoi ballet. Trigger keys were extracted from closely guarded combination safes. Missiles were fueled and prepped.
Silos were pressurized. Coordinates were loaded into the guidance systems and targeting computers. Warheads were activated.
Heavy metal hatches slid open, exposing the tips of the warheads. More codes unlocked the firing mechanisms. Each man played his part, like a cog in some infernal assembly line designed to manufacture Armageddon.
A regimented litany of checks and responses proceeded with sickening inevitability. Losenko watched himself perform his own functions without hesitation, yet all the while a frantic voice at the back of his mind screamed silently.
It made no sense. The Cold War was over and inter- national tensions, while never completely at rest, were nowhere near a level that might justify such madness. He was aware of no crisis-no global emergency-that could have escalated to all-out nuclear war in a matter of hours. His most recent updates from Fleet Command had hinted at nothing of the sort. The Americans had troubles enough in Afghanistan and Iraq. They did not need any more.
A sense of almost supernatural horror gripped the captain's soul. What demon had possessed them? Had their president lost his mind? Didn't he realize that he had just doomed his own country? The man was supposed to be a cowboy, not a maniac.
Losenko resisted an urge to cross himself.
The sub leveled off as it achieved firing position.
“Fifty-six meters,” the diving officer called out. “Fifty- five meters.”
For a brief moment, Losenko considered going higher, all the way to periscope depth. Perhaps he should risk raising his masts, then break radio silence long enough to consult with Fleet Command one last time before passing the point of no return. Billions of lives hung in the balance. What if this was all some terrible misunderstanding?
What other explanation could there be?
But, no, the risk was too great. He shook his head to clear his mind of any lingering doubts. He dared not compromise the safety of his ship, not before he had fulfilled the awful responsibility Fate-and Mother Russia-had entrusted to him. His orders were clear, double-checked and authenticated beyond all question.
It was time to kill more than six million men, women, and children.
“All compartments report readiness,” Ivanov informed him. A muscle twitched beneath his cheek. “Missiles one through fourteen await your order.”
Losenko nodded. Moscow had ordered nearly all of the Gorshkov's complement of ballistic missiles into the air, leaving only two rockets in reserve. Even that degree of caution struck the captain as faintly ludicrous under the circumstances. Would there be anything left to bomb after the initial exchange?
He felt a dozen eyes upon him, while the sub itself seemed to be holding its breath. His mouth felt as dry as ashes. He would have killed for a shot of vodka.
“Initiate fire,” he commanded.
His words were carried to the weapons officer in missile control. The final trigger was activated. The entire boat bobbed slightly as, one after another, the massive weight of fourteen 130,000-ton missiles exited its silos in sequenced bursts of expanding nitrogen gas. Automated systems pumped tons of water into the missile compensation tanks to keep the sub more or less level.
They were close enough to the surface that the sound of shattered ice penetrated the stillness of the ocean when the unleashed missiles burst through the arctic icecap. In his mind's eye, Losenko could see them arcing through the sky as their first-stage rockets ignited high above the Barents Seas, then veered away from one another en route to their ultimate destinations, thousands of miles away.
“One through fourteen away,” the missile chief reported. “Launch successful.”
It's done, Losenko realized. Once our birds have flown, they cannot be recalled.
Although the target package selected by Moscow had been expressed in terms of coordinates and computerized programs, he knew all too well where the missiles were going. To the American state of Alaska, home to major population centers and key military installations. All those targets-and those who lived there-had just been condemned to incineration. Losenko had never visited Alaska, but he had heard it was a beautiful place.
He wondered what would be left of it.
“God help us all,” he murmured. “Execute evasive maneuvers. Down bubble, thirty degrees!”
During testing, the successful launch of a missile was cause for pride and celebration. But not today. Now that the deed was done, Losenko's strength and discipline threatened to desert him. His legs felt limp and a dreadful weariness descended upon his shoulders. Looking out over his men once more, he saw tears streaming down the faces of veteran sailors. Muttered prayers and curses rose from the general hubbub.
“Yankee bastards!” Ivanov spat. Rage contorted his handsome features. His fists were clenched at his sides.
“May they burn in hell forever!”
The captain allowed the XO his outburst and his anger. Alexei had just lost his family and his future, like everyone else aboard K-115.
We are all damned now, he thought. May heaven forgive us.
He had no idea how he was going to live with what he had just done.
“Dive the boat!” he barked hoarsely. “Dive!”