In mid-2011, Boer-led reactionaries seized control in South Africa, and restored Apartheid. In response to a U.N. trade embargo, they began sinking U.S. and British merchant ships. NATO forces mobilized, with only Germany holding back. Troops and tanks drained from the rest of Europe and North America, and a joint task force set sail for Africa — into a giant trap.
There was another coup — in Berlin. Kaiser Wilhelm’s closest heir was crowned, the Hohenzollern throne restored after almost a century; a secret conspiracy planned for years. Germany would have her “place in the sun” at last. Coercion won over citizens not swayed by patriotism or the onrush of events.
Covertly, this Berlin-Boer Axis had built tactical atomic bombs. They ambushed the Allied naval task force underway, then destroyed Warsaw and Tripoli. France capitulated at once, continental Europe was overrun, and Germany established a strong beachhead in northern Africa. Germany captured nuclear subs from the French, and advanced diesel submarines from other countries. A financially supine Russia, supposedly neutral, sold weapons to the Axis for hard cash. Most of the rest of the world stayed out of the fight, from fear or greed or both.
Now, American supply convoys to Great Britain are suffering in another terrible Battle of the Atlantic. If the U.K. should fall, the modern U-boat threat will prove that America’s overseas trade routes are untenable. The U.S. will have to sue for an armistice: an Axis victory. America and Great Britain both own ceramic-hulled fast attack subs — such as the USS Challenger, capable of tremendous depths — but Germany and South Africa own such vessels, too. Now, as harsh winter approaches in Europe, the British Isles starve, the U.S. is on the defensive, and democracy has never been more threatened....
Twenty years after Desert Storm, in a different sort of war.
In the mid-Atlantic ocean, near the Azores
Captain Taylor told himself it must have been that convoy battle raging in the distance. The shock wave and noise from yet another tactical nuclear detonation rocked his ship, the USS Texas — a steel-hulled Virginia-class fast-attack sub, Taylor’s home, his mistress at sea, his relentless yoke of command responsibility. Taylor knew from the feel of the shock that it was an Axis underwater blast, meant to shatter the Allied freighters bottoms, now that their Royal Navy escorts were mostly neutralized. This far off, Taylor’s sonar people wouldn’t hear the breaking-up sounds or the screams. But by sheer chance the echoes from those A-bombs had given Texas away, mocking the quieting of her machinery, making useless the stealth coatings on her hull.
Robert Taylor, a beefy guy, was normally upbeat and jocular, but now he bitterly cursed his luck. The latest undersea blast-front bouncing off Texas would betray his depth and course and speed to the pair of Axis nuclear subs, which had him in a pincers — they’d never have spotted Texas without that endless searing thunder off to starboard, from the east. Taylor and his crew, and his Special Warfare passengers, had far more important things to do than tangle with them now. His orders even forbade his helping the U.K.-bound food convoy.
Taylor’s executive officer said he was ready to open fire. The small atomic warheads on the Advanced Capability (ADCAP) torpedoes were all enabled, the outer tube doors open. The silent stalking was over with. Inside Taylor’s head, twenty long years of Navy experience and training — and of constant physical risk and separation from his loved ones — all became sharply focused on the next few seconds and minutes of mortal combat.
“Firing point procedures,” Taylor ordered, “tubes one and two. Target Master One, match sonar bearings, and shoot.”
“Tubes one and two fired electrically!” the XO called out.
A heartbeat later the sonar officer reported four enemy torpedoes in the water, two each incoming from the port and starboard beams.
The Texas had six tubes in all. Taylor quickly launched another pair of his nuclear ADCAPs, targeting the other ex-French Rubis-class boat, Master Two. He decided to save the last pair for antitorpedo fire, to try to smash the inbound weapons using area bursts. Anticipating this, inevitably, the wire-guided Axis fish began to spread out. Each Rubis had four tubes. Taylor was outgunned.
Suddenly there were eight incoming torpedoes in the water, four on either beam.
Taylor badly wanted flank speed, but the Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) minisub that Texas carried on her back created hydrodynamic drag. The SEAL team leader volunteered to man the little vessel to release it from its host, and a lieutenant (j.g.) wearing gold dolphins offered to serve as copilot. Taylor reluctantly gave assent. Another distant rumbling rocked the ship, reminding them all what was in store for Texas. The sonar officer put his passive broadband on the speakers.
The nerve-ripping whine of a dozen torpedo propulsion systems filled the Command and Control Center air, in 3-D quadraphonic. Taylor could almost feel those eight eager Axis A-bombs drawing closer by the second, ready to unleash new underwater suns. Their top speed was twice that of Texas, and the range was short enough to make survival touch and go. Taylor fought down his fear: Emotions like that had to wait. Repression and denial were survival tools.
The ASDS was ready. It was set loose.
Taylor snapped more orders. His tense helmsman made a knuckle in the water, then dialed up flank speed. Flank speed, everything Texas had. The normally mild-mannered XO, now frowning and sweating, kept launching noisemakers and acoustic jammer pods.
Taylor’s eyes roved constantly, between the crewmen crowded round him and the color-coded data on his command workstation. Briefly he watched the plot of the newest contact, the battery- powered ASDS, as it tried to sneak away. It was by far the slowest thing out there, and without it their whole mission would fail, before it had even begun. Silently Taylor beseeched his God, not for himself nor even for his crew and their dependents, but for the entire Allied cause. Ever since the Double Putsch in Berlin and Johannesburg some six months back, this war had not gone well, not for the good guys.
It was almost time for Taylor to launch his two available nuclear countershots — tubes one through four were still busy being reloaded. For the humans involved, Taylor told himself sardonically, time may have seemed to slow down, but the torpedo room loading equipment ran its oblivious pace.
Grimly Taylor forced himself to use every moment and think. The longer he waited, the more those incoming fish would bunch up, and he stood a better chance of wrecking several with each precious ADCAP. But the longer he waited, too, the smaller grew that narrow margin of distance between Texas and the hostile warheads’ kill zones. Underwater, a mere one kiloton would be immensely destructive.
Taylor studied the geometries on his screen, watching the dozen torpedoes, projecting their tracks, asking himself what the enemy captains’ next move would be. His judgment had to be perfect. Now. He gave the order to fire.
“Tubes five and six fired electrically!” the XO’s voice shouted back.
The cacophony outside the ship increased once more — fourteen torpedoes in the water going one way or another, above the constant nasty hiss of Texas’s own flow noise, plus the unending ungodly roar of antiship A-bombs from that separate convoy versus U-boat battle in the distance. “Both units running normally!” a sonarman called.
Then came a deafening hammer blow, bad enough to shake the control room consoles in their shock-absorbing mounts. Plastic mugs flew from cup holders, splashing coffee on the deck. Taylor held on hard to an overhead fitting. He would’ve grabbed for a periscope shaft had there been one, but in the Virginia-class all outside imaging was done electronically.
“Whose weapon was that?” he demanded, as the turbulent shaking began to subside and his console began to reboot.
“Master One’s!” the XO said. “One Axis fish went for our noisemakers!”
“How many torpedoes still running?”
“We need to wait for the reverb to clear!”
“What about our own units?”
“All six still functioning, sir. Good contact through the wires.”
Taylor glanced at a depth gauge, then ordered his submarine shallower. This had always been standard doctrine in tactical nuclear war at sea, to benefit from surface cutoff effect, the venting of fireball energy into the air. The Cold War might be long over, the enemy different now, but the underlying physics hadn’t changed.
Taylor went back to his screen. It was time to trigger those last two ADCAPs. Commands were relayed; the water around Texas heaved. The resounding cracks, so close, were much sharper this time, punishing Taylor’s ears. The vibrations were much sharper, too. An overhead light fixture shattered, and nearby crewmen protected their eyes.
A phone talker, young and already scared, pressed his hands to his bulky headset, listened intently, and raised his voice. “Flooding in the engine room, lower level port side!”
Too many things were going on at once. Taylor ordered the XO aft, to oversee repairs. The weapons officer deftly stepped in as Fire Control Coordinator. The tactical plot was refreshed. The nearest threat icons showed up with very high position confidence, the enemy torpedoes so noisy now as they ran at endgame speed. Two Axis fish were still closing in from starboard, one from port, clearly picked up on Texas’s side-mounted sonar wide-aperture arrays.
The ASDS tried to raise the Texas by underwater telephone, but the message was unintelligible, conditions out there were so bad. Then the minisub started to ping, on maximum power. Taylor realized it was trying to act as a decoy, to protect its more high-value parent. The two men aboard, two good men Taylor knew well and liked and cared about, must know that they’d die: The ASDS was unarmed. One Axis torpedo acquired it; the others pressed on toward Texas. Again Taylor had to squelch down his emotions: Around him, man and machine were melded into a conflict that wiped out any possible sense of personal future or past.
Tubes one through four on Taylor’s weapons status window flashed green, ready to fire. There was a heavy roar from astern, and the ASDS icon on the main plot pulsed, then vanished.
There was a pair of distant roars; more shock waves pummeled the ship. Taylor heard several men shouting at once.
“Units from tubes one and three have detonated!”
“Close-in hits on Master One and Master Two, assess both targets destroyed!”
Then from the phone talker: “Flooding aft is worsening, Captain, two feet deep in the bilge!”
The chief of the boat worked his console with tight concentration, trying to preserve neutral buoyancy and maintain level trim. He’d put in his papers to retire at twenty just days before the war broke out — forget about that now.
There were still two incoming torpedoes, spaced wide apart off the port and starboard quarters. Taylor ordered tubes one through four fired, more defensive nuclear snap shots. But the inbound weapons were so close now it was a toss-up whether they could be knocked down in time. Even if their proximity fuses were set very tight, buying Texas a few extra seconds, the ADCAPs might not reach safe separation quickly enough for survivable preemptive blasts. Again Taylor studied his screens. A week-old image forced its way into his mind, his wife and their two teenage girls, making good-byes on the pier in New London.
“Detonate the weapons,” Taylor ordered. He knew it was too damned close.
The explosions, reinforcing each other, knocked him off his feet. His shoulder struck an unyielding corner; an awful pain shot through his chest. Console tubes imploded. The deck shook so hard his vision was blurred, and the air began to fill with pungent smoke.
He saw men dazed, others moving and speaking, then realized he was deafened and he tried to read their lips. The phone talker, bleeding profusely from a flattened nose, mouthed each word carefully. “Flooding in Engineering is out of control.” The bilge pumps couldn’t keep up.
Taylor turned to the chief of the boat, and commanded an emergency blow. Surfacing into the tons of radioactive steam and fallout topside appalled Taylor, but it was their only chance. The bottom-mapping sonar was useless in such chaotic acoustic conditions, but the inertial nav plot told him enough. The seafloor here went way down past their crush depth.