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David Poyer

Onslaught: The War With China — The Opening Battle

It is time, Odysseus said, that I told you of the disastrous voyage that Zeus had willed.



The East China Sea

The tiny, pale, crab-like animal had hatched only hours before. It scurried about a world it barely sensed. Tendrils of weed. Cool water, seething with microscopic prey. And arching above, a scatter of stars. The crab clambered here and there, fearful and greedy, grasping and eating. With only the faintest stirrings of thought.

Until it dimly felt some distant change. A high-pitched vibration, trilling through the translucent sea. It peered nearsightedly around, then returned to its instinctive seeking.

A shadow neared. The crab-thing paused again, eyestalks waving frantically.

A gentle wave lifted the sprig it perched on. It tensed. Sensing danger, yet not knowing what it feared.

An immense column of gray steel tore the universe apart, tumbling the creature over and over in a seething froth. It beat at the unsupporting sea with segmented legs, helpless in a hissing green.

Until something silver flashed in the darkness…

Silver, and toothed

* * *

Leaning against the splinter shield of USS Savo Island, a tall, sandy-haired officer looked down at where a patch of seaweed, barely visible in the predawn darkness, had disappeared in the seethe of the bow wave. A cool wind blustered against his cheeks. The singsong keen of sonar drilled through steel.

On the horizon another shape raced eastward with the speeding cruiser. Neither showed running lights.

Eastward, toward impending battle…

“Good morning, Captain.”

Captain Daniel V. Lenson, USN, turned, sighing inwardly, and returned his executive officer’s salute.

Petite, humorless, and apparently immune to any need for sleep, Cheryl Staurulakis was the best second-in-command he’d ever had. Her pale hair was pulled back tightly, just visible under one of the black-and-olive shemaghs they’d bought in Dubai. Like him, she was in dark blue ship’s coveralls. “Come on out, Exec. Geeks still down?”

“Geeks” was the Global Command and Control System. Staurulakis frowned down at a clipboard. “Uh, yessir. They either shot down our satellites or jammed them somehow.”

“Which is also why we’ve lost GPS. All right, go ahead.”

“We’re in company with Mitscher. Pittsburgh is lane clearing fifty miles ahead. We’ll rendevous with Curtis Wilbur, Stuttgart, and two Japanese destroyers. Stuttgart has fuel, an ammo reload, and a passenger for us — an NCIS agent.”

Dan massaged his jaw. Someone aboard had abducted and raped one of the female petty officers, capping a series of sexual assaults. “Good. We can use his help; we need to nail this guy, fast. Names on the Japanese units yet? Capabilities?”

“No sir. Comms are still spotty. Heard anything from the States? Your wife? Your daughter?”

Dan shook his head as Savo Island rolled, as her bow wave creamed out below them, sparkling and gleaming with cold constellations. The Navy depended on satellites for communications, data transfer, remote targeting, and navigation. But since the outbreak of theater nuclear war, then China’s attack on India across the Himalayas, most had been either shot down or hacked into uselessness.

On the other hand, Intel said all enemy reconnaissance assets, at least that the U.S. knew about, had been taken down as well.

Joint Operation Plan Sachel Advantage/Iron Noose was the contingency plan for a conflict with China. It had placed a carrier battle group in a blocking position north of Taiwan. But USS George Washington had struck two submarine-laid mines. Pacific Command had plugged Dan into the gap with an adaptive force package. The impending join-up would weld six U.S. and Japanese units into the Ryukyus Maritime Defense Coalition Task Group, with him in charge as Commander, Task Group 779.1.

A temporary commodore. He leaned back, squeezing his eyelids shut. Tuning his hearing to the steady roar of blowers and machinery, the murmuration of voices inside the pilothouse. Smelling, along with the dark sea, the ship scents of exhaust and fuel and fresh paint and the night baker making cookies. When he opened them, the top-heavy-looking superstructure towered against the dark sky. Her ID flags snapped in the wind, and the battle ensign streamed out straight.

The powerful radars of Aegis cruisers could detect and track over two hundred contacts simultaneously. But Savo fielded an even more impressive capability. Her upgraded combat system could lock on ballistic warheads screaming down from space. The hatches on foredeck and fantail covered Block 4 Standard missiles, along with antiaircraft, antiship, and Tomahawk land-attack rounds. He’d expended several of them trying to stop the nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, but had been only partially successful.

With the U.S. sucked back into a reflare in the Mideast, China had come to Pakistan’s aid with an attack on India. Now the dominos were toppling around the world.… He coughed into his fist. “We’re crossdecking Dr. Schell, right, Cheryl? We have to keep sterilizing those hot-water heaters.”

“Chief engineer’s on it.” The ship’s lead engineer, Bart Danenhower.

“How about the other antiballistic cruisers?”

“USS Monocacy’s en route from Guam, for a position south of Taiwan. Hampton Roads is finishing a hasty fitting-out in Pearl. She’ll defend Manila, along with the rest of our old battle group. Once we’re all in position, we can cover the inner island chain against missile attack.”

Dan said, “If everything works perfectly, and we don’t get overwhelmed.”

Staurulakis murmured, “Yes sir. Also, our sub forces are moving closer inshore.”

“Great. But Intel said most of the Chinese sub fleet’s already vanished.”

“Yeah… they’re out here somewhere.” Staurulakis squinted past him into the dark. “The U.S. and Indian navies have been directed to impose a blockade on China and the ‘Opposed Powers.’ No grain, no strategic materials, no oil.”

Dan fiddled with his wedding ring, contemplating the paling sky. Not yet dawn; merely a lighter shade of black, as if a fluorescent light had been snapped on below the horizon.

A thousand miles to the west, a combined U.S./Vietnamese force was gathering. China’s far-flung atolls, bases, and logistics in the South China Sea would be vulnerable, as Japan’s outposts had been in an earlier war. If the Chinese premier, Zhang Zurong, pushed southward, the allies — Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia — would fight to defend their claims there.

But if China could break through the eastern island chain, Zhang could pincer Taiwan, isolate South Korea, and neutralize Japan.

Dan’s task group would be the last line of defense. If it failed, if he failed, the conflict might be enormously long and bloody… a fourth world war, if you counted the long twilit struggle with the Soviets as number three.

The aluminum gridwork underfoot rattled. “Captain. We join you out here?” The chief quartermaster, Van Gogh, cradled a sextant. Behind him was apple-cheeked Ensign Mytsalo.

“Morning stars, Chief? Sure, step into my office.”

Van Gogh held it out. “Do the honors, Skipper?”

“I’m pretty rusty on a sextant, Chief—”

“Hey, we’re all rusty, sir. We’ll just do it over until we get it right.”

Dan had to grin at that. “All right. Sure. XO, you might want to listen in. You’ll be doing this too. If we don’t get GPS back.”

Staurulakis positioned herself beside the canvas-shrouded bulk of a machine gun as Van Gogh read off his calculations. Dan set the sextant to the elevation, sighted along the pelorus for the bearing, and found Sirius. The Dog Star. The brightest in the sky.

Muscle memory kicked in. He found the brace, tucked his elbows, and rocked the distant glitter in an arc, verniering it down with the micrometer drum until it just kissed the barely visible sea horizon. He twisted the lock nut. “Mark.”

“Time: zero four fifty-one,” Van Gogh intoned, clicking the stopwatch. “Elevation? We need to get these fast, Cap’n, sunup’s a-comin’.”

Dan hit the light button, and read it off the arm and the drum. From the pilothouse the junior officers gaped with holy awe, as if at some arcane ceremony. Van Gogh gave him the next bearing and elevation, in the hushed tones of an acolyte.

He lifted the apparatus that had guided mariners for centuries, and steadied it once more.

* * *

Dan’s pimply mess attendant, Longley, brought up a tray at 0530. Sliced ham, eggs, and coffee. Dan ate perched in the command chair, groggily watching the sun blowtorch the curved horizon from ironglowing red to lily orange, then blazing gold. He’d only gotten uneasy naps in the padded leather chair.

His operations officer, Matthew Mills, came up as the radioman arrived with the morning traffic. Tall and fair, Mills could have graced a Harlequin cover. Dan flipped through the clipboard. George Washington w ...