Authors: Gordon Kent
“Turn us to 180, Gup,” Soleck said, craning his neck. “Sounds to me like the Indians jumped the gun and we have a missile strike coming in.” He looked out over the sunlit sea and up to the clouds, trying to find the two Indian Jaguars mentioned on the AAW frequency. They were clearly in radar silence, as he didn’t have anything on the S-3’s primitive ESM.
Now if they were in the water—
In the water
fired a synapse somewhere in his brain. That weak signal up north was a rescue transponder. That’s why the freq looked familiar.
Man in the water!
He was reaching for the radio when he saw the Jaguar, a high glinting in the sunlight, starting its steep descent to imitate a missile heading for its target—the carrier.
“Goblin’s not responding to the tower.”
“Fuck him.” Rafe couldn’t remember an exercise with such dicked-up comms. Was the guy really an asshole, or had someone put out the wrong freqs? Who knew?
“He’s less than a minute out and starting his pop.”
A pop-up was a typical terminal maneuver in most anti-ship missiles. The missile would climb sharply after it chose its target, then come down as nearly vertical into the deck of the target as possible. The Indian pilot was going for realism.
“He’s too fucking close,” from Air Ops.
was still turning, her aft anti-missile systems unmasked and “firing” for exercise purposes, but the rate of turn had slowed and Rafe felt the
of a plane launching, almost certainly the second F-18, headed south.
“Get him the fuck out of our airspace!” the same voice in Air Ops shouted.
Rafe glanced around, and something moved in his peripheral vision, and then the world exploded.
Soleck was two miles to the north of the stack of the carrier and just turning inbound to establish his refueling track, more attention on his armrest data screen than on his instruments, when movement in his peripheral vision caused his eyes to flick into an instrument scan and out over sea—
“Holy mother of God,” Soleck said.
There was a fireball rising from the deck of the carrier like a Hollywood special effect, orange and white and spreading from the bow to the stern, the violent red pulses punctuated by streaks of white rising from the flames. The fireball itself rose so high that the island, the command node of the carrier, vanished in an orange bloom.
His plane shook, and then a fist of air nearly struck them from the sky.
The commodore’s pistol was a Czech CZ75 with a full fifteen-round clip but no extra ammo. Alan figured it would be about as good as a peashooter against the automatic weaponry he could hear, but it helped him fight a feeling of loss of control.
The Marines were herding them like school kids down a back stairway, two of them leading and one covering the rear. “I feel like I’m back at Adirondack High,” Benvenuto muttered. “Fucking fire drill.”
Crossing the third-floor foyer, the Marines had met two others; there had been a tense moment when both groups had got ready to shoot, and then they had identified themselves, and the two newcomers had said something to the sergeant and veered off down another corridor toward the office of the Commander, West Fleet—God knew what they’d find there. The building was chaos, three bodies and a wounded man scattered along the central corridor like sacks dropped off a truck, a trail of blood down the tile where the first wounded Marine had been dragged. Twice, they had seen other people at a distance; both times, everybody had flinched, crouched, and then the others had run away and they had moved on in their hurrying file.
he had thought grimly.
But different Indians.
They passed office after office with closed doors. Inside, he suspected, unarmed
people were trying to wait out whatever was going on. Or were dead.
Fire. All around him, fire, and something on his legs.
Rafe flailed his arms, seeking to get them free. A tumble of images, separated by flashes of darkness.
“Sir! Stop fighting me! Sir!”
Rafe pushed against something and the vertebrae of his back impacted against a sharp corner, sending more pain through his body in a jolt. He curled up, and the weight settled all over him. Weight and pain. He lay still. More tumbles. No sense of time.
“That leg might be broken. Move him carefully.”
“Sir, we got to get him clear of the bridge. The whole fucker could go!”
“Roger that. Down to the O-3 level.”
“Anyone else alive up here?”
“Captain Rogers is dead. Helmsman is over there, I tried to wrap him, everyone forward of this bulkhead died when the fucker hit us. Admiral was coming back for coffee, that’s why he’s—”
Rafe moved his head under the fire blanket and tried to speak. “—hit us?” he tried to say, but it only came out as a croak. He
But time was moving now.
He felt them putting him in a clamshell. His back and legs hurt so much he couldn’t really think, felt himself going into shock, tried to breathe. The fire blanket fell back from his face.
“—what hit us?” he tried, but again, it was like a hiss of air.
Madje’s face appeared in his arc of vision. It was red and there wasn’t any hair on it.
“Sir? Can you hear me?”
Rafe got out.
Madje leaned closer. “That Indian plane hit the deck just forward, sir. The fires are pretty bad. We’re moving you to the O-3 level, and we’re fighting the fires.”
Madje shook his head. “Captain Rogers died a few feet from you. CAG Lushner may be alive but the flight deck is—no one can go out there.”
Rafe scrabbled at Madje like a corpse rising from the grave. His hands were burned claws and the angry red flesh on his sides showed under the ruins of his flight suit, but he rose almost to a sitting position.
“You—find senior now! Take command!”
Madje nodded, almost saluted, but Rafehausen had fallen back into the stretcher. The admiral coughed in pain as a portion of his left index finger, complete with the nail, remained stuck to the clamshell where he had gripped it to sit up.
From the moment Soleck saw the Indian fighter plow into the after deck of the
his mind focused on what would have to be the prime interest of every airplane aloft.
Soleck’s AG 703, flying as a mission tanker, had twenty thousand pounds of JP-5 to give when the carrier ceased to be a haven. AG 706, the last plane to launch before the catastrophe, had as much again. Scattered across two hundred miles of ocean were eleven other planes, mostly F-18 Hornets, famous for their short legs and suddenly bereft of their home base. Some of them had been on Combat Air Patrol since the last launch event more than an hour before, and their fuel tanks were as close to dry as their flight parameters and safety allowed. Down to the south, Donitz had already gone to burner and made at least one turn against exercise opposition from another flight of Indian Air Force
Jaguars before the accident; he had less fuel than any of the others. Up to the north, two F-14 Tomcats from VF-171 were on picket with the northernmost fleet elements, and somewhere up there was supposed to be Stevens’s S-3 with a buddy store holding more gas. The rest of the planes were close at hand, waiting in the stack for the launch of the rest of a sea-strike package that would never come.
“Where we gon’ to land?” Guppy said. He was shaken, his voice a monotone, his face as gray as his flight helmet.
Soleck had the plane under control and the altitude even. Now he was trying to watch the whole sky for other planes. The tower had been off the air from the moment of the accident. He could see that the initial explosion and the resulting fire had stripped every antenna from the carrier, and that meant that the planes in the stack were on their own. Soleck feared that other pilots might leave their assigned altitudes and start flailing around, increasing the risk of collision.
“Gup, we could fly to China with this much gas. Shut up and get me Alpha Whiskey on radio two. And try and raise the skipper in 701.”
Soleck could hear a babble of pilot exchanges on Alpha Whiskey, with every plane in the stack clamoring for fuel and information. Alpha Whiskey, the radio frequency reserved for air-warfare command and usually controlled from the Ticonderoga-class cruiser
was being clobbered. “Start writing that shit down, Gup. Get their fuel states. Hey,
Stay with me, man.”
Soleck had completed his turn at the north end of their track, and they were now nose-on to the burning carrier, just a mile out. The plume of smoke rose more than a thousand feet, and the tower leaned out over the starboard side. Guppy couldn’t take his eyes off it.
Soleck reached over and slapped the side of his helmet. “Gup!”
“Sorry.” Guppy mumbled something but opened his knee-board pad and started following the voices on AW.
Madje had been lucky, protected by the heavy central bulkhead when the first explosion happened. Madje had dragged the admiral clear of the fire on adrenaline alone, put a fire blanket over him, and donned a breathing apparatus, then rescued the helmsman. He would never remember doing any of these things. His first conscious action had been getting the firefighting team to help him get the admiral out of the smoke.
But the thing he would never forget was the sheet of flame covering the whole deck as the fire spread, interspersed with fountains of fire as aircrews punched out of their stranded planes. He had seen it for only a moment, a second, before the forward part of the bridge started to warp and collapse. He must have been moving the admiral by then. Things were missing—time, space, fire, pain. It was as if the last hour was a movie, and all he had was the promos.
He put a hand to his head and hair came away, burned. His face felt as if he had a bad sunburn. He shook his head inside the respirator mask.
Who was next in command?
Figure the CAG as dead, burned in his cockpit, or ejecting into the water and thus unavailable. The boat’s skipper was dead. That left the flag captain, the navigator, and the engineer, all captains. The flag captain ought to be down on the O-3 level in the flag spaces, where Madje had planned to move Admiral Rafehausen. Seemed like a good place to start. He shone a flashlight down the ladder well through the smoke.
Where had he got a flashlight?
“Looks clear,” he shouted through the hatch.
“Lead the way, sir. We’ll bring the admiral.”
A blast from outside the tower rocked it, moved it by
several inches and distorted the bulkhead to his left. He touched it cautiously and it burned him.
“Down! Now! Quick as you can! This wall is hot! Go, go!”
They ran and fell and fought down the steel ladder, around a platform and down again, with wrenching noises above them and a roaring like a jet engine. Madje knew that the flight deck was just the other side of
hatch, and he could see from the distortion all along the wall that the other side was exposed to extreme temperature. The heat came through the respirator, burned his face again and scorched his hands.
When this wall burned through, the tower would collapse. The structural beams visible on the vertical surface were spalding, huge flakes of hot metal shooting off them in response to impacts from elsewhere. For the first time, it occurred to Madje that the carrier might not recover.
“We interrupt the regularly scheduled program for a special bulletin. Residents of the city of Mahe report the sound of explosions and what they describe as ‘rapid gunfire’ from the nearby Mahe Naval Base. Radio India is trying to establish contact with the local naval headquarters. Elsewhere in the nation, two incidents of what also appears to be fighting have occurred, one in Pondicherry, one in the far north of Uttar Pradesh state. A government spokesman denied that any such thing was occurring and pooh-poohed the idea of terrorism. A spokesman told this reporter that, quote, ‘Military fire practice rounds here all the time.’ Amal Gupta, Delhi.”
Madje followed the stretcher-bearers down the ladder to the O-2 level, below the flight deck. It was full of smoke, it was hot as hell, and there was already water up to their ankles. His arms and back were hurting through the adrenaline from the effort of carrying the helmsman.
“Shit!” the lead man on the stretcher shouted. “We sinkin’?”
“Fire hoses!” Madje shouted. “Move! Move!”
Around another platform, through another hatch and down to O-3. Water was pouring through the ladder well, all run-off from the fire hoses fighting the fires in the corridor above. A sailor in a respirator was standing at the bottom of the ladder.
“Where you boys coming from?” he said harshly. Close up, Madje could see he was a Chief Petty Officer.
“That’s Admiral Rafehausen, hurt bad. The guy over my shoulder’s the helmsman from the bridge. I’m Lieutenant Madje.”
The CPO looked as if he might let Madje off this time. “Get t’admiral forward. Doc has Ready Room Two for casualties. Then get your asses up to Chief White forward. Sir, I have to ask you to join a fire team.”
“Chief, I have a last order from the admiral. Then I’ll be back.”
Even through the respirator, Madje could read the chief’s contempt, as if officers could be expected to find excuses to avoid firefighting. Maybe they could. Madje followed the stretcher down the starboard passageway to Ready Room Two, passed the unmoving helmsman to a triage team, and got a spasm of pleasure when they gave him a thumbs-up. He watched two corpsmen hovering over the admiral, loitered for a moment, and realized that there was nothing,
he could do here. He sloshed back out into the passageway, got a look from the chief, and headed forward. He squeezed past a hose team preparing to go topside, climbed over the knee knockers at frame 133, and found himself squelching into the relatively clean flag area and its brilliantly polished blue tile floor. He looked in flag ops and flag intel and the living quarters. No flag captain.
It was quiet, and he was tired. He stood in the flag briefing
room, alone, insulated from the fires three decks above, and thought how easy it would be to sit down. Then he did. His legs hurt and his back felt as if he had twisted it, and his face felt swollen. It probably was. He lifted the respirator off his chest—and got back up.
“Fuck,” he said aloud. He put the respirator back on, felt it tug at the fatigue in his spine, and got a twinge of his own eventual middle age.
A Toyota panel truck backed up to the loading dock of Building Three of the New World Technological Center. Three figures wearing heavy coveralls, gloves, and hoods got out. While one pulled up the loading gate to the interior, the other two opened the rear doors of the truck and took out two large fans, which they carried into the building. Unreeling electrical cords while two of the building’s workers watched and did nothing—the people in the coveralls, one of them a woman, smiled at them—they plugged the fans into a wall socket. The third figure unreeled a hose from the panel truck. All three people put on goggles and respirators, and one of them went to the truck’s driver’s seat. The others turned on the fans. Sarin gas began to flow through the hose.
Madje went back out into the passageway, headed aft. He passed another fire party checking a hose, and then he got to the big steel hatch labeled “Combat Information Center.” It was dogged shut. He rapped at it with his knuckles. “Flag lieutenant!” he shouted. Heads turned in the passageway, he was so loud.
Inside, somebody undogged the hatch. He pushed through and they dogged it behind him.
“Flag captain here?”
He could see from the kid’s patches he was from the S-3
squadron and probably attached to the ASW module just forward. The kid just shook his head. He looked numb.
He passed the ASuW station and walked into the domain of the tactical action officer. There was a little smoke here, but no smell of fire. The screens were lit and functioning.
“Sir, the admiral sent me to find out who the senior officer is and place him in command. The skipper is dead. I think the CAG is gone, too.”
The TAO nodded. “CAG died in the first hit. His Tomcat was on cat four.”