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Tidal Rip
by Joseph J. Buff, [IMAGE]2003

An Excerpt


In mid 2011, Boer-led reactionaries seized control in South Africa in the midst of social chaos, and restored Apartheid. In response to a U.N. trade embargo, the Boer regime began sinking U.S. and British merchant ships. Coalition forces mobilized, with only Germany holding back. Troops and tanks drained from the rest of Western Europe and North America, and a joint task force set sail for Africa -- into a giant, coordinated trap.

There was another coup, in Berlin, and Kaiser Wilhelm’s great-grandson was crowned, the Hohenzollern throne restored after almost a century. Ultra-nationalists, exploiting American unpreparedness for such all-out war, would give Germany her “place in the sun” at last. A secret military-industrial conspiracy had planned it all for years, brutal opportunists who hated the mediocrity and homogenization of the European Union as much as they resented what to them seemed like America’s smug self-infatuation. Big off-the-books loans from Swiss and German money-center banks, collateralized by booty to be plundered from the losers, funded the stealthy buildup. The Kaiser was the German shadow-oligarchy’s figurehead to legitimize their New Order. Coercion by the noose won over citizens not swayed by patriotism or the sheer onrush of events.

This Berlin-Boer Axis had covertly built small tactical atomic weapons, the great equalizers in what would otherwise have been a most uneven fight -- and once again America’s CIA was clueless. South Africa during old apartheid ran a successful nuclear arms program, canceled around 1990 under international pressure. Preparing for new apartheid, and working in secret with German support, the conspirators assembled many new fission devices: Compact, energy-efficient, very low signature dual-laser isotope separation techniques let them purify uranium ore into weapons-grade in total privacy.

The new Axis, seeking a global empire all their own, used these low-yield A-bombs to ambush the Allied naval task force underway, then destroyed Warsaw and Tripoli. France, in shock, surrendered at once, and Continental Europe was overrun. Germany won a strong beachhead in North Africa, while the South African army drove hard toward them to link up. The battered Allied task force put ashore near the Congo Basin, in a last ditch attempt to hold the Germans and well-equipped Boers apart. In both Europe and Africa the fascist conquest trapped countless Allied civilians: traveling businesspeople, vacationing families, student groups on summer tours. Americans and Brits were herded into internment camps near major Axis factories and transport nodes, as hostages and human shields. It was unthinkable for the Allies to retaliate against Axis tactical nuclear weapons used primarily at sea by launching ICBMs with hydrogen bombs into the heart of Western Europe. The U.S. and UK were handcuffed, forced to fight on Axis terms on ground of Axis choosing: the mid-ocean, using A-bomb-tipped cruise missiles and torpedoes. Information-warfare hacking of the Global Positioning System satellite signals, and ingenious jamming of smart-bomb homing sensors, made the Allies’ vaunted precision-guided high explosive munitions much less precise. Advanced radar methods in the FM-radio band -- pioneered by Russia -- removed the invisibility of America’s finest stealth aircraft.

Thoroughly relentless, Germany grabbed nuclear subs from the French, and advanced diesel subs that Germany herself had exported to other countries -- these ultra-quiet diesels with fuel-cell air independent propulsion needn’t surface or even raise a snorkel for weeks or months at a time. Some were shared with the Boers, whose conventional heavy armaments industry -- a world leader under old apartheid -- had been revived openly during the heightened global military tensions of the early twenty-first century. A financially supine Russia, supposedly neutral yet long a believer in the practicality of limited tactical nuclear war, sold weapons as well as oil and natural gas to the Axis for hard cash. Most of the rest of the world stayed on the sidelines, biding their time out of fear or greed or both.

American supply convoys to starving Great Britain are being decimated by the modern U-boat threat, in another bloody Battle of the Atlantic. The U.K. has suffered stoically through one of the harshest winters on record -- food, fuel, and medical supplies are running critically low. Tens of thousands of merchant seamen died in the Second World War, and the casualty lists grow very long this time too.

Now, nine months into the war, in early spring of 2012, America is smarting from serious setbacks in the Indian Ocean theater. The vital Central Africa pocket -- composed of surviving U.S./coalition forces and friendly local African troops -- is in danger of complete envelopment by the Axis. With cargo vessels being sunk much faster than can be replaced, resupply across the shipping lanes is becoming harder and harder. Yet if the pocket and the UK fall the Axis onslaught would overwhelm all of two continents. At the same time, Axis agents are making serious trouble in Latin America, exploiting continued local political instability and economic distress; a whole new front could threaten U.S. security and strategic material resources from due south. Brazil, like South Africa, had a nuclear weapons program in the 1980s -- its current status isn’t known by American intelligence.

If the situation deteriorates much further, and Allied forces become too overstretched, the U.S. will have no choice but to recognize Axis territorial gains. With so many atom bombs set off at sea by both sides, and the oil slicks from many wrecked ships, oceanic environmental damage has already been severe. Presented with everything short of outright invasion, and nuclear weapons not used against the United States homeland quite yet, the U.S. may be forced to sue for an armistice: a de facto Axis victory. A new Evil Empire would threaten the world, and a new Iron Curtain would fall.

America and Great Britain each own one state-of-the-art ceramic-hulled fast attack sub -- such as USS Challenger, capable of tremendous depths -- but the Axis own such vessels too. With Germany’s latest, the Admiral von Scheer, representing a whole new level of anti-ship power and stealth, the U.S. is on the defensive everywhere, and democracy has never been more threatened. In this terrible new war, with the mid-ocean’s surface a killing zone, America’s last, best hope for enduring freedom lies with a special breed of fearless undersea warriors. . . .

In the not too distant future.

The air was cold and dank and smelled of diesel oil. Ozone laced with the stench of dead fish was pungent. Wearing his full dress uniform, including clumsy ceremonial sword, Korvettenkapitan Ernst Beck stood morosely on the concrete pier amid the modern underground U-boat pens, above the Arctic Circle. Noise echoed from all around him in the vast but sealed-off space, from cranes and pumps and power tools and forced ventilation ducts. Beck could almost palpably feel the weight of thousands of meters of solid granite press down on him from above, from the steep and snow-clad mountain, up a long and very deep fjord, into whose sheltering massiveness this complex of pens had been blasted and cut.

While he killed time patiently waiting for his captain, Beck -- whose rank equaled lieutenant commander in the U.S. or Royal Navies -- thought the recent construction work here looked skillfully done and well planned. He knew it was mostly completed by Norway, an active member of NATO, before Norway was overrun and occupied when Beck’s country, resurgent Imperial Germany, went to war. In fact, if Beck paid careful enough attention when he breathed, the air still smelled slightly sour, from the curing of fresh-poured cement. The lighting, from floodlights and bare fluorescents, was glaring and harsh. From near and far many voices yelled to each other, orders or questions and answers projected above the machinery din. Beck’s crewmen were crisp and professional; the yard workers in their own proud way sounded tough and intentionally vulgar.

As he glanced up for a moment at the lowering, hard gray ceiling of the pens -- barely higher than the sail, the conning tower, of his stark black nuclear submarine -- Ernst Beck also felt the weight of the burden of many cares. In the dock beside him loomed the big new vessel, the mighty undersea warship on which he would serve as executive officer, with all the responsibilities that entailed. A family man with a devoted wife and sturdy young twin sons, good Catholic in the traditional Bavarian way, and trapped in a tactical nuclear war he believed to be morally wrong, Beck knew he was lucky to still be alive. He also felt secretly guilty, that he could smile and make love with his wife and drink beer when so many others were dead and utterly gone, friends and colleagues some of them, vaporized or crushed and drowned or felled by acute radiation sickness. Yet ironically, Beck also was glad. He knew he was lucky indeed after his recent misadventures in battle: to have this fine ship, to get this important assignment, to even be allowed to go to sea once more at all. . . .

Again Beck felt that gnawing in his innermost self, and fought against another combat flashback. Not now, of all times, with my captain due any moment and our warship about to put to sea. But still the flashback came, the same way the awful nightmares never ceased.

The screams of torpedo engine sounds, and of terrified, agonized men. The murderous crack and rumble and the body-wrenching shock force, like thunderclaps mixed with an earthquake, as nuclear torpedoes went off near and far. The acrid smell of fear in the control room, and the smell of choking smoke, then the worse smell of burning corpses mixed with urine and vomit and shit. . . . Running breathlessly, and hoarsely shouting orders above the crackle of the flames. Climbing the steep steel ladder in desperation with a dying master chief draped on his shoulders -- Beck’s best friend. Trying to think straight and give leadership while truly scared and exhausted beyond enduring.

Beck shook his head. There was nothing glamorous about tactical nuclear war at sea. It tore at the heart and battered the mind, and left the human soul in shredded fragments. These broken shards of Ernst Beck’s soul ripped at him from inside sometimes, a feeling in his stomach like broken glass. The inter-generational Germanic craving for empire, even at the risk of national self-immolation, seemed incurable, unquenchable. Decades could pass, and the disease was reborn, like a flare-up of a stubborn case of malaria . . . or the dreaded return of a once-cured cancer that this time might be terminal.

For escape, Beck turned to gaze admiringly at his ship, his submarine -- his new home and his new life. She’d been christened the SMS Admiral von Scheer, to honor the commander of the German fleet at the Battle of Jutland in World War I -- a battle the Germans called Skagerrak, and which to this day they insisted they’d won. The British saw it differently, but the Brits were on the point of starvation now, and maybe on the point of surrender, in part thanks to Beck’s previous warfighting handiwork. Beck had already helped sink a million tons of Allied shipping, and killed God-knows how many people in the process, and he was a hero. He now wore the prestigious Knights Cross around his neck.

But Ernst Beck didn’t feel like a hero.

Blessedly, he was distracted when he saw a young, skinny figure clamber up through the von Scheer’s forward hatch. Beck recognized Werner Haffner, the sonar officer, a lieutenant junior grade from Kiel -- an historic German port and naval base on the Baltic Sea.

Haffner was high-strung but capable. Unlike most of the von Scheer’s crew, Haffner had been with Beck before, on his previous mission, the one from which so few men came back. The crew of the von Scheer, who all reported to Beck directly or indirectly, were still largely unknown quantities to him. Though they, like Beck himself, had for years trained secretly aboard not-so-neutral Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet -- for a hefty fee, of course -- the bulk of von Scheer’s crew were as untested in actual combat as their brand-new ship. This worried Beck, who would somehow have to turn them into one cohesive unit through the unforgiving medium of war itself.

“Sorry, sir,” Haffner said.

“You’re lucky our captain is running even later than you,” Beck responded as sternly as he could. “Fix your uniform, and try not to trip over your sword again.” But Beck smiled. He liked Werner Haffner, and felt better having the Leutnant zur See standing there next to him. Seeing Haffner reminded Beck that surviving was possible.

One of von Scheer’s senior chiefs approached Beck on the pier. The Oberbootsmann wore work clothes, gray coveralls and steel-toed boots. He looked harried but in control. The chief braced to a cocky, all-knowing attention. “We’re ready to take on the fuel for the Mach eight missiles, Einzvo. The dockyard handling parties are getting in position now to transfer the liquid hydrogen.”

“Carry on.” Since Beck was executive officer -- Erster Wach-Offizier in German, First Watch Officer -- he was often addressed in that navy slang, the acronym 1WO pronounced phonetically “einzvo.”

Beck glanced toward the after part of his ship. The two dozen thick, pressure-proof hatches for the cruise missiles were all tightly closed. Most of those hatches covered internal silos that each held several supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, nuclear armed. These missiles were of Russian design, export-model Modified Shipwrecks. They did Mach 2.5, fast enough. Some of the silos held cargo instead, including crated tactical atomic warheads that Beck assumed were meant for delivery to the Boers in distant South Africa. The Boers made their own warheads, using native uranium ore, but they might be running low on weapons-grade material because of recent heavy use in the Indian Ocean battle theater.

And one of the von Scheer’s silos held two German-designed top secret liquid-hydrogen-powered ground hugging cruise missiles that actually did Mach 8. Nothing the Allies had could stop them, even if they knew they were inbound. One such missile, nuclear tipped, was enough to destroy an American supercarrier with almost absolute certainty. Beck hoped that on this next mission the von Scheer would account for two.

The Mach 8 missiles were in very short supply, thanks to interference from the Allies. For all Beck knew, the two he held on board were the last ones Germany had, and it would take a year to retool and manufacture more. Who could tell where the war might stand by then?

The loudspeakers in the dock area announced the commencement of fueling operations. The tinny-sounding voice concluded, “All unnecessary personnel leave the area.” Beck listened to the words echo and die away against the oppressive concrete walls enclosing him and his men and his ship.

Beck ordered von Scheer’s hatches shut and dogged. But since his captain still was due from the base admiral’s office with final mission orders any moment, Beck and Haffner stayed on the pier, as the ship’s reception committee.

Beck’s captain was a jolly, roly-poly man, emotionally expressive, candid and frank. Beck found this a refreshing change from his previous commanding officer, an austere and distant man, arrogant and unlikable; it had been hard for Beck, the son of a dairy farmer, to work for such an aristocratic snob. Beck looked forward to his new captain’s arrival now, so they could get underway, and Beck could draw some comfort from this captain’s ample personal warmth. Obedience to someone he admired fulfilled Beck. He dearly loved the sea, and loved being a submariner -- the intimate sense of community among the crew, hiding together submerged far down underwater, to Beck was nurturing despite the risks. It helped make up for the loneliness, the homesickness, each time he left on deployment and left his wife and sons behind. Besides, the sooner this war was over with and won, the sooner Beck’s family and the whole world would be safe. Safe from constant danger and hunger and want. Safe from drifting atomic fallout and all its harmful effects. Safe from the dread of uncontrolled escalation to major nuclear fighting on land.

Beck caught himself, his mind wandering again, and felt conflicted. Such doubts and fears, even unspoken, were unpatriotic. Beck was a man who’d been decorated by the figurehead Kaiser himself. Beck forced his thoughts to focus on specific tasks of the present. . . .

The liquid hydrogen would be pumped into the cryogenic storage tanks inside the von Scheer’s hull through a special fitting in the side of the hull near the stern. Beck saw the thick insulated transfer hose was already in place. Several of Beck’s crewmen, supervised by the senior chief, stood on the after hull or on the pier. They worked ropes that helped support the weight of the hose as it bridged the gap from the edge of the pier, over the frigid dirty water in the dock, and up to the hull’s refueling port.

All is in order. . . .

And except for the type of fuel, and what weapons that fuel is meant for, this could be a scene off one of our diesel U-boats in World War II.

Beck watched idly from a distance as technicians in protective suits worked controls at the base’s fueling station, beyond the far end of the pier. Quickly, exposed pipes and valves began to cake with frost: moisture from the air in the pens, instantly freezing on contact with the chilled fittings. One man went to turn a large main valve wheel, to admit the super-cold liquid hydrogen into the hose to the von Scheer.

Beck saw a sudden blur of frantic motion. Someone shouted but the words were lost in a roar of glaring, angry, bright red flames.

Beck flinched involuntarily against the radiant heat as men rushed to douse a fire by the refueling station. Other men dashed for more hoses. A special team in silver reflective flame-entry suits moved in with their foam applicators.

Beck knew immediately that something was terribly wrong. The fire grew hotter and brighter, and as he watched the visible front of the flames engulfed a wider and wider area. Beck’s heart pounded hard -- the men were being driven back, and their firefighting hoses were burning through. Beck heard more garbled shouting and screaming. He bellowed orders of his own, but the von Scheer’s crew were already racing to disconnect the fueling hose.

The heat in the enclosed space of the pens began to mount frighteningly. Burning rubber, lubricants, paint, even clothing, gave off sooty, choking clouds of thick black smoke. The smoke mixed surreally with the fluffy billowing white of searing live steam from fast-combusting hydrogen. Beck watched in disbelief as someone in the distance collapsed, their whole body on fire.

Beck desperately wanted to help, but the scene was almost the length of two soccer fields away and there was nothing he could do. The von Scheer’s hatches stayed sealed up -- Beck dared not try to have one opened lest he endanger his ship catastrophically. Beck turned to Werner Haffner, standing there mesmerized. Beck shouted, “Come on!”

Both men ran to the far end of the pier, beyond the von Scheer’s bow -- away from the fire. They were confronted by the huge steel interlocking blast doors leading out to the fjord; the way was barred completely.

Beck glanced back in abject terror. Hungry flames like living things were leaping to more and more cartons and crates of provisions, were feeding hungrily on hydraulic fluid in cranes, or licking seductively at oiled machinery.

Steam lashed Beck’s skin and throat. Smoke hurt his lungs. His eyes stung blindingly. Roaring and crackling punished his ears. Beck felt unbearable heat on his face, felt heat right through his uniform. The fire was out of control.

Beck tore off his sword belt, and urged Haffner to do so as well. There’s only one thing left.

Beck shoved Haffner into the water in the dock and jumped in after him. Both men went far down before they could fight their way upward for air -- from below, Beck saw eerie red and orange glows flicker and glint off the water. At last his drenched head broke the surface.

The water was salty and bitterly cold. Beck coughed as it went up his nose. His eyes burned even more, from the salt, but at least he and Haffner were protected from some of the heat. The air this low was more breathable. Beck felt his woolen uniform begin to soak through, chilling him -- in the wintry fjord, just outside, floated many big chunks of ice. Then the cold hit with full force. Through his sodden white dress gloves Beck’s fingers ached with a throbbing pain. His breathing came in uncontrollable, over-rapid gasps. Beck’s clothing grew heavy from the weight of added water, and he knew his attempts to swim were getting clumsier. He began to fear hypothermia as much as he feared the fire.

Beck saw Haffner also struggling to keep afloat. Neither man wore life jackets. Beck summoned the last of his strength. He grabbed the lieutenant and together they worked their way to the first of the big rubber fenders that cushioned the von Scheer against the pier. There were no steps or handholds for them to climb onto the fender. Its top was much too high for Beck to reach. Beck floated like an insignificant speck next to his ship. He looked longingly up at her massive hull: immense and round and smooth, inhuman, uncaring, and slimy from immersion in seawater during the latest shakedown cruise. It was impossible to get up that way without help.

Beck’s fingers were completely numb from the cold, and he’d lost most of the feeling in his groin and in his neck. Beck’s eardrums hurt as he heard a dull thud, then a sharp bang, from the direction of the fire. Above him a layer of smoke and steam grew thicker, reaching lower and lower each second. Beck wondered if he’d drown first, or asphyxiate. He and Haffner huddled their freezing bodies together for warmth, their arms hooked through fittings in the fender to keep their heads from going under. At the same time, in mind-twisting contradiction, the exposed top of Beck’s head and the tips of his ears suffered more and more heat. In the distance men continued to shout or scream unintelligibly.

Beck waited for the end, for a final blast of liquid hydrogen flash-boiling into gas and detonating inside the U-boat pens like a hyperbaric bomb.

But the pitch of the fire sounds altered, more defensive and subdued. The loudest roaring now was the blasting of water from firefighting nozzles. The shouting Beck heard was much more confident, not panicky . . . even triumphant.

The noise and heat began to diminish.

The roaring changed pitch yet again. Ventilators on full power drew fresh air in from outside and the smoke was expelled. At last crewmen appeared on the forward part of von Scheer’s hull. They lowered a rescue team on ropes, and these men pulled Beck and Haffner out of the oily, stinking water.

Someone put a thick wool blanket around Beck’s shoulders and gave him a glass of medicinal brandy. He gulped it gratefully, but shook off any offers of further help. Now he was very angry, angry that something had gone wrong that might have harmed his beautiful ship. Angry at himself, for being caught so useless. Then he saw dead bodies on the pier, some of them charred, and wounded men, some with serious burns. Now Beck was even angrier, because in the crisis he’d run for his life while others bravely battled the fire. The fact that there was nothing Beck could have done did little to ease his mind.

The ship's medical corpsman came out of a hatch, with spare sets of winter coveralls and seaboots, and towels.

“Get out of those wet things immediately, sir,” the corpsman told Beck. Beck and Haffner stripped and dried themselves, putting on fresh clothes right there atop the hull. An assistant corpsman climbed out of the hatch and helped Beck don a thick orange parka for added warmth. Beck felt better physically, and the brandy and inner anger restored his mental strength. He had a thousand things to look into.

“How many of the crew are hurt?” Beck demanded.

“No one below, sir,” the corpsman said. “Topside, I don’t know yet.”

The chief of the boat stuck his head out of the forward hatch. He was the highest-ranking noncommissioned officer aboard, and overseeing the day-to-day well being of the ship and her crew were significant parts of his job. “Negligible damage below, Einzvo. Engineer reports he’s inspecting the outside stern right now, but so far just a few nicks in the anechoic coatings.”

Beck breathed a sigh of relief.

“Sir!” called the senior chief whom Beck had talked to before, the leader of the refueling party. The man walked up the aluminum gangway from the pier. “You better come and see this.” The chief’s jumpsuit was covered in soot; his eyes were red and his nose dripped black snot. He sounded hoarse, and Beck could see the marks from a firefighting respirator mask against his face. But at least the chief was all right, which seemed to suggest the other crewmen at the back of the hull might be safe.

Beck eyed Haffner. “Sonar, go below and get some rest.”

“But sir --”

“A direct order, Sonar.” Beck pointed at the open hatch; Haffner climbed down. Beck envied Haffner his energy, the resilience of youth, but Beck knew that with Haffner’s wiry, bird-like build delayed shock could set in soon.

Beck followed the senior chief wearily, and warily. The chief’s whole manner told Beck it would be bad news. They walked toward the dockyard’s refueling station.

The station equipment was charred, though the main liquid-hydrogen containment hadn’t been breached -- Beck knew they’d all be dead now if it had. The ceiling everywhere was blackened, and twisted aluminum ducting and broken wiring conduits hung down. These swayed weirdly in the artificial and icy wind from the forced-ventilation ducts.

Overhead lightbulbs were shattered, and Beck felt bits of broken glass as they crunched beneath his boots. Emergency floodlights bathed the scene. Paint was burned and peeled from structural beams; the naked steel was oxidized to rust. The concrete floor was slippery from firefighting foam. Mounds of debris from once-neat stacks of spare parts and supplies and food still smoldered or dripped; firefighters methodically hosed down stubborn sources of smoke. Two forklifts and an overhead traveling crane were total losses.

Despite the ventilators going all out the smell was terrible. Beck saw men using digital cameras to record everything they could. Beck saw other men fill body bags, or lay white rubber sheets over smaller pieces of flesh.

“Here, sir,” the senior chief said. He had to raise his voice above the continuing roar of the ventilators. The chief led Beck to a body bag. Rescue workers stepped respectfully aside. The chief unzipped the bag.

The thing inside looked barely human. Blood oozed where there once had been skin. The clothing was either dark ash, or was soaked with the bright red blood. The stench close up, to Beck, was much too familiar.

The body was burned beyond recognition. The chief reached down and lifted the corpse’s identity tags, on a chain around what was left of the neck. Ernst Beck knelt and read the metal tags; someone else had already scraped off the ashes and clotted blood. This was the corpse of Beck’s captain, caught on his way from the base admiral’s office, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Before the dismay and grief had a chance to sink in, the base admiral himself strode up.

“Sabotage,” the admiral snapped. Almost two meters tall, he towered over Beck. His eyes were hard and his lips were mean and his whole manner said he was not used to being questioned by subordinates.

Even so, Beck asked how he knew. “

The valves for the foam were all chained in the off position. They were chained on, like they should be, when inspected half an hour before the refueling started. . . . And the water deluge system, it’s fed by gravity alone, it’s supposed to be foolproof. But something, someone, put obstructions in the holding tanks. Waterlogged wooden plugs dragged into the distribution pipes the moment the teams yanked the emergency downpour.” “

But somebody still had to start a fire, Admiral,” Beck said. “Didn’t all the equipment get checked?” For incendiaries, or time bombs, he meant. “

A suicide arsonist. That was the easiest part for them to arrange. . . . We were infiltrated. Norwegian freedom-fighters.” The admiral surveyed the scene, which Beck now realized was being treated like a crime scene. “One or two of these bodies. . . . The saboteurs were probably the first to die. If my firemen had been one jot less aggressive attacking the flames with what little they had until we could fix the main problems. . . . We averted a total disaster by seconds.”

Beck felt stunned and violated that this secure base had been so brazenly, easily penetrated. But he also had to admire the skill and self-sacrifice of the partisans. “

"Did they know the von Scheer was here?”

"We have to assume so. It can’t be just chance, that all this happens right as you’re fueling your missiles.”

Beck nodded grimly. “That means the resistance knows all about us.” The von Scheer’s location in northernmost Norway was one of Germany’s most closely-guarded secrets.

The admiral’s face hardened even more. “Yes. Which means the Allies might know already, or they’ll find out very soon. You must get underway at once.” “

But what about the captain?”

"You assume command. Get the von Scheer out of here. She’ll be much safer at sea.” “

Are those my formal orders, sir?” “

Yes. Verbal, but formal. You’re by far the best qualified. I’ll send you a messenger with spare keys and the combinations for the commanding officer’s safe. Meantime finish inspecting your ship for damage, then begin reactor startup. You can study your deceased captain’s mission orders once you’re underway.” He nodded to an aide, who handed Beck a thick sealed packet marked in red MOST SECRET.

Beck took it. “Er, yes Admiral.” “

"Manage as best you can. This is not your first patrol.”

No. Just my first patrol as a captain.

"Yes, admiral. Of course.”

The admiral shook Beck’s hand gruffly, then glanced around again at the death and the wreckage. “Such a waste of good men. I’ll never hear the end of this from Berlin.” Members of the admiral’s staff, and shore-support logistics officers, were already gathering, seeking the admiral’s attention on urgent details. Standing around, they gaped at the gore and destruction. But Beck had seen more than enough.

He turned to walk back to his ship.

"Wait,” the admiral called. “One other thing. You wouldn’t have known.”


"Berlin has a passenger for you. That’s him now.” The admiral pointed to a figure walking down the ramp from the upper, administration level, now that the automatic fire-containment doors had all been raised. Beck saw a civilian, carrying a small suitcase.

The civilian came closer. He wore an expensive business suit and a fine silk tie. He glanced at the blood and burned flesh all around with a look of disgust more than horror. “

Are you the von Scheer’s captain?” the man asked Beck. His voice was very refined. His face betrayed a self-image of nobility. His posture, his movements, were polished and smooth. And also subtly condescending. “

"No. The captain is dead. I’m first officer.”

The admiral overheard. Admirals always do have eyes and ears in the back of their heads. “

I said you’re commanding officer now,” the admiral snapped. His tone conveyed, So act the part and get on with it. “

Indeed,” the civilian commented, taking this interplay in. He held out his hand and Beck shook it as firmly as he could. “Rudiger von Loringhoven,” the civilian said, by way of introducing himself.

Von Loringhoven began to walk toward the von Scheer’s gangway, forcing Beck to follow him. “

Who are you, exactly?” Beck asked.

"Diplomatic Corps. Are the Kampfschwimmer aboard yet?” Kampfschwimmer, battle swimmers, were the German Navy equivalent of U.S. Navy SEALs or the Royal Navy’s Special Boat Squadron. “

"Yes,” Beck said. “Before the fire, with all their equipment. . . . If you don’t mind my asking, why are you here?” Beck realized that von Loringhoven spoke with a hint of a Spanish accent. There were much easier ways to get from Norway to Spain than by submarine.

Von Loringhoven handed his leather suitcase to a crewman and started down the ladder inside the forward hatch. He didn’t request permission to come aboard, or show any other courtesy. Halfway down, von Loringhoven glanced back up at Beck. “

"It’s all in your secret orders, Captain. I should know, I helped write them.”

Chapter 1

The Omni Shoreham Hotel, Washington, DC.

Commander Jeffrey Fuller let the hubbub of the cocktail reception swirl around him, in the huge grand ballroom of the posh and historic hotel. The crowd moved to their own indecipherable Washington rhythms. The strong currents and nasty undercurrents of socialite glitter and power brokers seemed to Jeffrey to be running way above his head, almost like he might be swept away. His feet hurt from standing for hours, and he was hoarse from far too much talking. The weight of the bronze medallion of his brand new Medal of Honor felt heavier and heavier on its ribbon around his neck. He tried to remind himself that the whole reception was because of him, but Jeffrey could see by now that almost everyone here was here for selfish reasons of their own. If anything, he told himself ruefully, the nation’s capital during this grimmest of wartimes was more unforgivingly competitive, and politically manic, than ever before.

Still, part of Jeffrey felt very fulfilled. He was surrounded by so much sheer energy from all these people, and this moment was the ultimate achievement of his naval career. He was also grateful that, at least for the moment, he was being ignored, lost in the crowd of civilians and of men and women in uniform. He tried to rest his eyes, which hurt from the glare of so many TV camera lights. The reporters must have gotten the footage they wanted of him, because the different clumps of extra glare from those lights were far away in the gigantic room. Jeffrey welcomed his temporary sense of solitude within the mob -- this came easily to a submariner, who lived in a cramped and crowded world and needed to make his own privacy, internally, wherever he was.

One of Jeffrey’s former shipmates, stationed now at the Pentagon, came by. “Hey, Captain. Way to go!” The two of them talked for a couple of minutes, then the other man moved on.

Again, Jeffrey savored a fleeting sense of joy, a tingling in his chest and a lightness in his gut. The Medal of Honor. . . . Jeffrey tried not to remember that winning a medal in battle usually meant that other good people hadn’t made it back.

All around Jeffrey wine glasses and cocktail glasses and soft-drink glasses clinked. Tuxedoed waiters circulated smoothly through the hundreds of guests, offering tidbits of snacks on silver trays. The offerings were meager, compared to all the events the hotel had hosted over the years, because of wartime austerity. It wasn’t lost on Jeffrey that all the wines were inexpensive labels, and every one of them was American made.

Jeffrey had had little appetite at lunch. Now his stomach rumbled, not that anyone else would notice in this din. As a waiter passed, Jeffrey grabbed a bite to eat -- a cracker with cheese spread.

Jeffrey realized none of the hors d’oeuvres he’d seen all afternoon included seafood. This wasn’t surprising, considering the amount of nuclear waste and fallout built up by now in the Atlantic. Some scientists said the ecological damage wasn’t really that severe, that the ocean was very vast and so the toxins were hugely diluted. The relatively small tactical atomic warheads now -- used by both sides hundreds of miles from land -- weren’t much compared to the many megatons the U.S. and USSR and other nuclear powers set off in the atmosphere or in the oceans in the early Cold War. But it was very different, at least psychologically, in an actual shooting war. No one was taking chances, which was too bad. Jeffrey loved seafood.

He quickly went from feeling fulfilled to feeling glum. Some of the atomic weapons set off in the oceans had been set off by his ship, on his orders. Jeffrey wondered for the umpteenth time how many whales and dolphins he’d killed so far, collateral damage to the environment as he went after high-value enemy targets. He rationalized that the Germans and Boers had started it all, this limited tactical nuclear war at sea. Allied forces needed to use nukes in self defense. High-explosive weapons just weren’t effective enough, when the enemy was firing at you with fission bombs. And precision-guided high-explosive weapons weren’t the cure-all some pundits thought before the war. The Axis had figured out how to distort the global positioning satellite signals, and how to detect and jam or kill a ground or airborne laser target homing designator. Some defense analysts warned about such things, before the war. Maybe they couldn’t get the right people to listen.

Jeffrey was self-aware enough to witness his own mood swings. So here I am, in glamorous wartime Washington, DC, wearing my country’s highest medal for valor, and I feel like crap. He grabbed for another hors d’oeuvre as a pretty young waitress went by. I need to raise my blood sugar. That should help. The waitress paused politely and Jeffrey took a dumpling filled with some sort of meat. Then Jeffrey watched what he already called “the process” start again.

The waitress saw his star-shaped bronze medallion out of the corner of her eye. She turned to look at his face, to make sure it was really him. Of course it was him: Commander Jeffrey Fuller, United States Navy, captain of USS Challenger. War hero. The man of the hour. On national TV, and on the cover of every news magazine -- the Internet was so plagued by Axis hackers and misguided hoaxes, most people used hard-copy newspapers to follow the war and the troubled economy. “

Um, sir, I. . . .” the young lady stammered.

Jeffrey met her eyes and waited. Submariners were very good at waiting.

She smiled, and hesitated. Then she positively beamed, and leaned a few inches too close. “Congratulations, Captain.” There was a hunger, a wanting, in her eyes. A Medal of Honor groupie? Was there such a thing? “

Thanks,” Jeffrey said, friendly enough but distant and noncommittal. He had his mask of command to maintain, his professional demeanor -- and he’d never felt comfortable flirting, whatever the context.

She controlled herself and switched to more of a daughter-father mode. “Thank you, Captain. For everything you’ve done, to help protect us.”

The woman hurried away, blushing. Maybe she wasn’t supposed to talk to the guests. Maybe she’d just felt nervous, suddenly talking to a battle-hardened nuclear submarine captain in his full dress blues. Flirting was natural when people felt nervous.

Jeffrey doubted if that young lady, if most of the civilians here, really knew what the medals on his jacket even meant, which one was which. He knew very few of them had any idea what a person had to suffer through to earn these medals. Today, on the theory that less was more, Jeffrey used only his major decorations: The Navy Cross, with gold star in lieu of a second award, for his first two combat missions in the recent conflict. The Presidential Unit Citation, awarded to Challenger’s whole crew by the Department of Defense, for what they did under Jeffrey’s leadership on their latest mission, their third, the mission for which he’d just received the Medal. . . . And his Silver Star and Purple Heart, won years ago back in the mid nineties. He’d been a freshly minted junior officer in the Navy SEALs in those days, on a black operation in Iraq, and the SEALs’ extraction went bad. Eventually recovered, but unfit for further commando duty, Jeffrey had chosen to transfer to submarines; wanting a career in the navy ever since he was a kid, he’d done Navy ROTC at Purdue, with a major in electrical engineering -- good background for his move to the Silent Service.

I was about that waitress’s age when I got wounded, Jeffrey reflected. The thought made him feel very old. He was 37, and this coming summer would turn 38, if he survived the war that long. He wondered what the navy would order him to do next. He wondered if he really would survive the war.

Out of the corner of his eye, Jeffrey caught a glimpse of Ilse Reebeck. She was a Boer freedom-fighter, and had served as combat oceanographer on Jeffrey’s submarine during all of USS Challenger’s war patrols. Originally a civilian consultant, now Ilse was a lieutenant in the Free South African Navy. Jeffrey saw her talking to several African dignitaries, diplomats and generals who’d been invited to the party. Jeffrey was heartened to see that an ethnic Boer could talk with a group of black Africans without them all coming to blows. This boded well for the future. Jeffrey knew there were plenty of “good” Boers. Ilse’s family had all been good, and paid the ultimate price for resisting the reactionary takeover last year: they’d been hanged with so many others, on national TV, in Johannesburg, South Africa’s capital.

Jeffrey, standing in a corner of the ballroom now -- to get breathing space against the increasing press of the crowd -- looked steadily at Ilse, trying to make eye contact. He could tell that she could see him. But she ignored him and continued to talk to her fellow Africans. Some of them wore traditional tribal robes, and Jeffrey thought these men looked very powerful. Finally Ilse blinked and subtly shook her head, and still didn’t look at Jeffrey. He gave up, and looked away.

Ilse was like that. He and she had been intimate, off and on. Ilse was very emotionally complex. Sometimes Jeffrey felt he was being used, since it was always Ilse who decided when it was time to be intimate or time to be detached. Today, she’d been altogether standoffish. She wore a new medal herself, the Free South African Legion of Merit, a gaudy embroidered sunburst over her heart, on a wide red sash. Jeffrey thought the whole thing looked overdone. But he’d hoped he and Ilse could share in the sense of celebration today. They weren’t, and Jeffrey felt disappointed.

Jeffrey reminded himself that Ilse had personal needs he could barely fathom. What was it like to lose your whole family and your country in one blow? What was it like to be torn from teaching at the University of Cape Town, and thrown into a bloody coup and then a bloodier war? If Ilse hadn’t been attending a marine biology conference in the U.S. when the trouble started, she might well be dead now too, strung up with her relatives. On top of everything else, she’d played a key role in several recent nuclear demolitions, and must still be reeling mentally from hand-to-hand combat with Kampfschwimmer at least as much as Jeffrey was. Kampfschwimmer terrified Jeffrey, and he was a former SEAL.

A senator wormed his way over, someone Jeffrey recognized from the newspapers. He chaired an important congressional subcommittee. The senator brought a staff photographer in his wake, and quickly struck a dramatic pose shaking the Medal of Honor winner’s hand in both of his own. Jeffrey tried not to blink when the flash went off. The senator disappeared in the crowd as quickly as he’d materialized. “


Jeffrey recognized his father’s voice. He turned. His father came over from out of the crowd, accompanied by Jeffrey’s mother. Both were very well dressed, for the special occasion. Jeffrey’s dad, Michael Fuller, wore a gray pinstripe suit that fit him perfectly, even though like many people he’d lost a lot of weight since the start of the war. His red, white, and blue striped tie’s Windsor knot was also perfect. Quite a switch from when I was a kid back in St. Louis, when my dad wore polyester clip-on ties and off-the-shelf sportsjackets. “

How are you feeling now, Mom?” Jeffrey was naturally concerned. Her color was healthy, but Jeffrey knew it was mostly his mother’s makeup. “

Good, Jeffrey. Today I’m feeling very good.” His mother grinned. When he’d first learned she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, he worried he might not even have a chance to say goodbye.

Jeffrey’s mom hugged him, and he hugged her back very hard. “

"I won’t kiss you on the cheek this time,” she said puckishly. “I got enough lipstick on your face already, posing for all those cameramen before.” Jeffrey’s mother had had emergency surgery less than two months before, and then a new chemotherapy protocol that specifically targeted cancer cells. The treatments were very effective, and were over so fast you hardly lost much of your hair. Her latest medical imagery scans showed her body free of all tumors.

I managed to escape my various sycophants and camp followers,” Jeffrey’s father said. Michael Fuller chuckled; he had a biting sense of humor. He and Jeffrey’s mother had been right up front at the formal ceremony this morning, when the President of the United States presented the Medal of Honor to Jeffrey in the Rose Garden. Now, with the President off on other pressing duties, Michael Fuller was holding court himself. Since the war began he’d had a meteoric career in the Department of Energy. Instead of being a local utility regulator, that middle-management bureaucrat Jeffrey remembered from his teen years, his dad had become a savvy political appointee in the nation’s capital, one of the dozen most senior people in the DOE.

“You look unhappy,” Michael said.

Jeffrey shrugged. “It all gets pretty wearing.” Jeffrey gestured with his eyes toward the crowd, which kept churning and babbling non-stop. “How do you stand it?” “

"It’s an important part of my job, the mingling,” Michael Fuller said. “You, in contrast, look rather uncomfortable.”

"This isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, Dad. I’ve lost count of how often I’ve had a microphone jammed in my face since lunchtime.” “

"Most of the people in this town would kill to get the exposure you’re getting today.”

Jeffrey made a sour face. “They don’t need to kill. They can have it. Right now. Take it.” “

"Jeffrey,” his mother tried to soothe. She touched him on the shoulder. “Your father and I both learned to enjoy meeting so many new people all the time. It’s a big game. Don’t take everything so seriously.” “

"I don’t have entirely good memories from when I was stationed in Washington,” Jeffrey said. At the Pentagon, a few years before the war. “

"Huh?” Michael said. He’d been distracted, giving an obviously phony smile as someone important-looking went by. The woman, whoever she was, gave Michael Fuller a pleasant but equally phony smile. The woman nodded at Jeffrey before she disappeared on the way to the bar, trailed by a retinue of followers of her own.

Jeffrey wanted to change the subject, but his father wouldn’t let him.

The man grew stern. “I think, in all honesty, you’ve taken enough of a break. Lord knows when you’ll have a chance to be with so many important people again. I want to see you out there, making contacts, not hiding in a corner like a scared little kid when the grownups have company.”

That made Jeffrey angry.

Michael Fuller chuckled. “See, Son? I know how to push all your buttons. I sit in my office and push people’s buttons all day. You need to master the trade yourself, if you expect your career to move up much further.” Michael pointed at Jeffrey’s Medal. “That thing might get you as far as full captain by pure momentum, but that could be as far as you ever go. If this war ends and we win it, and you don’t get killed or maimed, you’ll never make admiral once you get tagged as a wallflower.”

"Ouch,” Jeffrey said. Of course, his father was spot on. Jeffrey could see telling signs of why Michael was chosen for Washington -- and promoted again once he got here -- amid major personnel shakeups since the outbreak of the war. “

Listen to your father,” Jeffrey’s mother coaxed, but there was a hint of steel in her voice too, and this surprised Jeffrey. “

Speaking of which,” Michael said, “I need to get back to the fray myself. There are people I want to talk to, and people who want to see me. . . . There’s the Deputy Secretary of Defense.” Michael Fuller pointed. “You only get the Medal of Honor once, presumably. Use that. I want to see you go up to the DepSec and make conversation.”

"What am I supposed to say?”

"Anything. Nothing. Two or three minutes is plenty. He knows who you are, believe me, but Washington people have very short memories. Make sure he remembers who you are.”

"Goodbye, dear,” Jeffrey’s mother said. She gave Jeffrey an encouraging pat on the cheek, then walked away holding her husband’s arm -- gliding across the ballroom floor, the perfect undersecretary’s spouse.

Jeffrey felt pretty small. He tried to build up the nerve to go talk to someone important.

It’s weird, how I’d rather be commanding my ship, out-thinking an enemy submarine captain in mortal combat, instead of attending a party.

Jeffrey was standing near a row of floor-to-ceiling windows, covered by plush maroon and white curtains, drawn closed. Idly, he pulled back the edge of a curtain and peeked outside.

The panes of glass were criss-crossed with strips of tape, to keep them from shattering in a blast. Right outside the windows, Jeffrey was confronted by a solid wall of sandbags.

Somebody isn’t taking any chances.

Jeffrey put his face closer to the window, and peered as far as he could, to the left. There was a sliver of a view, looking down into the wide ravine of scenic Rock Creek Park. Jeffrey could barely make out part of the big stone archway bridge that carried Connecticut Avenue across the ravine. The sky was clear, not yet growing dark. Looking directly up, Jeffrey saw the high, fast-moving contrails of a pair of fighter jets, on combat air patrol over the capital.

Jeffrey pulled himself away from the window and pulled himself together. He stood up straighter and took a deep breath. He saw someone he’d been introduced to briefly before, the four-star admiral who was Commander, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. Jeffrey decided to follow his father’s advice now. He’d go chat the admiral up.

Before he got there, a murmur of surprise and interest rippled through the crowd. Heads all turned in unison to the entry doors to the ballroom. Even the TV floodlights focused that way.

Over the loudspeakers, someone announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.”

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