READ THE FIRST FIVE CHAPTERS
It was just past two in the afternoon when the president’s motorcade sped down 17th Street NW toward the White House. In the center of the convoy, the president rode in the back of Cadillac One, a hybrid vehicle built on a truck frame and extensively modified with armored plating and bulletproof windows. As the motorcade approached the President’s Park South, commonly called the Ellipse, Cadillac One screeched to a halt, as did the rest of the motorcade.
The president’s door was yanked open and he was pulled from Cadillac One by his Secret Service detail. They surrounded the president, shepherding him toward the nearest building as the head of the president’s detail explained.
“We’re under attack—ballistic missile!”
Atop several buildings surrounding the White House and Capitol Building, surface-to-air missiles streaked upward. The president followed the white exhaust trails, spotting five reddish orange objects descending toward the city. He almost froze when he realized what they were.
There had been no warning.
How was that possible?
Neither NORAD nor the Joint Air Defense Operations Center had provided a warning, which should have arrived twenty or more minutes ago.
Through a gap in the Secret Service detail, the president spotted the Navy officer carrying the Presidential Emergency Satchel, sometimes referred to as the nuclear football, containing the nuclear launch authentication codes and attack option matrix, sprinting toward him. But there was neither the time nor the necessary information—who had attacked—for a response.
As the missiles streaked upward, the president knew the probability of destroying the descending warheads was minuscule. Not even the most sophisticated anti-ballistic missiles in the American arsenal could consistently intercept nuclear warheads traveling in the descent phase.
A few seconds before warhead detonation, the president and his security detail had just begun climbing the steps toward the nearest building. They weren’t going to make it. The head of the president’s detail reached the same conclusion. He forced the president to the ground and ordered the agents to cover him with their bodies. As the president was smothered by his detail, one question in his mind stood out from the others.
How could this have happened?
THREE WEEKS EARLIER
Russian President Yuri Kalinin entered the Kremlin conference room, joining his advisors seated around the table. The six men stood, then returned to their chairs after the president took his position at the head of the table. To the president’s right were Defense Minister Anton Nechayev and Foreign Minister Andrei Lavrov. On the other side of the table sat four military officers: Chief of the General Staff Sergei Andropov, joined by the commanders of the Russian Ground Forces, Aerospace Forces, and Navy.
Kalinin had assembled his senior civilian and military advisors to review the results of their disastrous initiative—Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Lithuania, along with their blackmail attempt to prevent NATO from intervening. Their effort had failed to keep the United States from interfering, however, and the Americans had soundly defeated the Russian Navy and had begun preparing for a counterattack into Lithuania and Ukraine. Russia had withdrawn its troops and peace now prevailed across Europe, but the sting of Russia’s failure remained.
Diplomatic relations had returned to normal and it was time to discuss the way forward. Kalinin turned first to his new minister of defense. “Proceed.”
Nechayev began with his prepared summary. “The Navy has finished its assessment. The water depth where the battle occurred is too deep to raise the sunken ships; they are a complete loss. Fortunately, the battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy and aircraft carrier Kuznetsov remained afloat after the battle. Both restored propulsion and have arrived at our nearest shipyard. However, they are heavily damaged and it will take at least two years to return them to service.”
Now that the bad news had been delivered, Nechayev shifted gears. “Our submarine force remains a viable asset, especially in light of the American losses during their war with China and the additional casualties they suffered at our hands. Although we lost most of our guided missile submarines, we still have thirty-five diesel and nuclear-powered attack submarines, while America has only eighteen fast attack submarines remaining in service. However, the United States raised twenty-seven of the submarines lost during their war with China, and the first of those will begin exiting the shipyards within the year. Our submarine advantage will not last long.
“We are in an even better situation regarding our land and aerospace forces. The army suffered only minor losses in Ukraine, so we are in excellent shape on the ground. In the air, we lost all tactical fighters assigned to the Middle East, but the bulk of our aerospace force remains intact. After factoring in our anti-air assets, we still have a significant advantage against NATO when it comes to aerospace forces.”
With his update complete, Nechayev sat back, letting Kalinin absorb the information.
General Andropov, Kalinin’s senior military advisor, joined the discussion. “Our basic strategy was sound. NATO cannot defeat our ground and aerospace forces without the United States. What failed was our strategy to keep the United States from intervening. If we fix that, we will succeed next time.”
“Next time?” Kalinin asked.
Andropov’s eyes narrowed. “America humiliated us. The images of our warships adrift and on fire have been shown repeatedly on the news, and public support for your administration is at an all-time low. If you want to be reelected next year, you’ll have to make a bold move.”
Kalinin replied, “It was the bold move you and Defense Minister Chernov recommended that created this situation. The plan failed, and I shouldn’t have to remind you that Minister Chernov was assassinated by the Americans.” He eyed his new defense minister, who shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“It was a flawed plan,” Andropov insisted. “We were supposed to blackmail the United States, keeping them from entering the conflict, but they blackmailed us instead. If we correct this flaw, we will prevail next time. The Zolotov option is finally ready to implement, and if the updates to the Alexander submarine class are adequate, America won’t dare risk intervening.”
Turning back to his new defense minister, Kalinin asked, “What is the status of the Zolotov option and the Alexander class?”
“As General Andropov mentioned,” Nechayev responded, “the Zolotov option can now be fully implemented. But, as you know, it is a high-risk, high-reward plan. Regarding the Alexander class, the equipment aboard Alexander has been upgraded and is scheduled for another test this afternoon. If it performs as intended, I’d have to agree with General Andropov. The American fleet would be at our mercy. Even if they chose to intercede in Europe, they couldn’t risk transporting their troops or equipment by sea. Any effort to oppose us would be seriously hampered.”
“Alexander’s test is this afternoon?”
Nechayev nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“We will meet again tomorrow,” Kalinin said, “and then I will decide.”
Standing in the Central Command Post of his Yasen class attack submarine, Captain Second Rank Anatoly Mikhailov surveyed his crew. They were at Combat Stations, tracking Hydroacoustic two-one, a submerged contact lurking off Kazan’s starboard beam in the Barents Sea. It was quiet in the command post as Mikhailov stood near one of the two lowered periscopes, occasionally glancing at the admiral beside him. Admiral Leonid Shimko, commander of Russia’s Northern Fleet, displayed no hint of what he was thinking as he watched Kazan’s crew prepare to attack.
Captain Third Rank Erik Fedorov, Kazan’s First Officer, stood behind two fire control consoles, peering over the shoulders of the two operators, each wearing the rank of michman on their uniform. He tapped one michman on the shoulder. “Set as Primary.” The michman complied and Fedorov announced, “Captain, I have a firing solution.”
Mikhailov examined the target parameters. The enemy submarine was six kilometers off Kazan’s starboard beam, headed west at ten knots. It was mirroring Kazan.
“Prepare to fire,” Mikhailov announced, “Hydroacoustic Two-one, tube One.”
“Solution updated,” Fedorov called out.
“Torpedo ready,” the Weapons Officer reported.
“Countermeasures armed,” the Watch Officer announced.
Mikhailov examined the target solution again. Satisfied it was accurate and all torpedo search settings were optimal, he gave the order.
“Fire tube One.”
The torpedo was impulsed from the tube, and Mikhailov’s ears popped when the impulse tanks were vented, refilling them to supply water for another shot. He moved behind his Weapons Officer, monitoring the status of their outgoing torpedo as it descended to the estimated target depth of 150 meters. The torpedo closed on its target, and at the predetermined range, went active.
“Torpedo one has enabled,” the Weapons Officer announced.
The torpedo began pinging, and not long thereafter the Weapons Officer reported, “Detect!”
The next report arrived seconds later, once the torpedo verified the detected contact was indeed a submarine.
On the Weapon Launch Console, the parameters updated as the torpedo increased speed.
Mikhailov’s eyes shifted to the nearest fire control console, looking for indication their target had begun maneuvering. The contact remained steady on course and speed. This, of course, was expected. The contact they had fired at was Kazan’s sister ship Alexander, a modified Yasen class, built and launched in secrecy from the Sevmash shipyard in the White Sea.
The torpedo Kazan had fired was an exercise version, its warhead explosive replaced with inert material. This was the fourth time Kazan had tested its torpedoes against Alexander, and Mikhailov wondered whether leadership suspected there was a problem with their torpedo inventory. After launch, the torpedo’s artificial intelligence controlled every aspect of target prosecution. It wouldn’t be the first time a software bug had rendered their torpedoes ineffective in some way. Thus far, however, Kazan’s torpedoes had performed as designed. This one appeared to be functioning properly as well.
“Exploder armed,” the Weapons Officer announced.
The exploder had rotated into the firing position, preparing to detonate the warhead. This torpedo wouldn’t explode, however, since the explosive had been removed.
Mikhailov watched the torpedo close the remaining distance to Alexander, then the Weapons Officer made the expected report.
“Exploder has fired!”
There was no explosion, though. Instead, Hydroacoustic reported, “Weapon impact.”
Normal exercise torpedoes had a turn-away feature or depth interlocks so the torpedo didn’t impact the submarine and break into pieces, or even worse, damage the submarine’s propulsor or screw during a shot from astern. However, the torpedo Mikhailov had fired against Alexander ran to termination, smashing into the submarine’s hull.
The result was anticlimactic. The torpedo had operated perfectly. When Mikhailov turned to Admiral Shimko, he was surprised to see a frown on the admiral’s face.
“Return to port immediately,” Shimko ordered.
Seated in his cubicle on the fourth floor of the Clark Curtain Laboratory building, Steve Kaufmann stared at his computer display, doing his best to stay focused. It was almost quitting time, in more ways than one. After replying to the latest email, he heard his division director’s voice, calling for everyone’s attention. Kaufmann looked over his cubicle, joined by several dozen other heads popping above the matrix walls. Jacinta Mascarenhas was exiting the elevator. Her executive assistant, Rich Underwood, followed behind, pushing a cart filled with champagne bottles and glasses.
Mascarenhas headed to an open area in the center of the cube farm, stopping beside a conference table where Underwood hastily unloaded additional glasses from beneath the cart.
“Gather round, everyone,” Mascarenhas said. “We have some celebrating to do.”
Kaufmann joined his colleagues, forming a semicircle around Mascarenhas. Kaufmann, tall and gangly, towering above most of his coworkers, watched from the last row of the crowd.
“Today marks the final shipment,” Mascarenhas began, “the last set of spares for a decade-long project. Many of you have been here since the beginning, and Clark Curtain Laboratory thanks you for your dedication and hard work.” She lifted a champagne bottle, peeling the foil and wire muselet from the cork. “I want to congratulate you on a job well done, completed on-schedule and on-budget, a rare accomplishment in the defense industry.”
Mascarenhas popped the cork from the bottle, bouncing it off the ceiling. Underwood caught the overflowing champagne in a glass, which he handed to Mascarenhas, who raised it high.
“Here’s to the successful end of one contract and the beginning of many more.”
Underwood filled the champagne glasses, and several employees passed them through the crowd until everyone had one. Kaufmann took a sip of champagne, savoring the bittersweet achievement.
The current contract expired at the end of the month and Clark Curtain Labs hadn’t won enough new government contracts to keep everyone employed. Kaufmann looked around, figuring that over half of those present would be looking for work by the end of the month unless the oft-promised replacement contract materialized. Kaufmann reckoned he’d be among those unemployed.
For the last ten years, Kaufmann had been assigned to the contract, developing the initial software, then tweaking the middleware as various microprocessors and other components went obsolete and were replaced with new versions. As the effort drew to a close, he’d seen the writing on the wall and had asked to be transferred to another contract, but Mascarenhas had disapproved each request. Kaufmann was far too valuable; no one knew the software code better than he did.
Kaufmann tilted his head back, emptying the glass. He hadn’t been happy, stuck to a dying contract. But at least he’d gotten a glass of champagne out of it.
The mid-afternoon sun filtered through the windows of his West Wing corner office as Chief of Staff Kevin Hardison reviewed the document on the table. Across from him, also reviewing a copy of the proposal, sat his White House nemesis, Christine O’Connor, the president’s national security advisor, while an aide on Hardison’s right took notes. Hardison braced himself for Christine’s rejection of his latest recommendation. Instead, she nodded her agreement. Hardison pulled back slightly, examining the woman across from him—the only person from the opposite political party on the president’s staff—more closely.
During the past three years, Christine had opposed him on almost every key proposal. The perennial thorn in his side was an incredibly obstinate woman. Even more irritating, her attempts to persuade the president to her point of view were quite effective. Hardison had stopped tracking who the president sided with more often once the trend became clear. However, during the past two months, Hardison had experienced a reversal of fortune. Christine had suddenly become agreeable.
Following the events at Ice Station Nautilus, Christine had buried herself in her work, staying late into the night and working every weekend. After she returned from Russia, however, the pattern had reversed. She left early when possible and no longer worked on the weekends unless the matter was urgent. Her interactions with Hardison and the rest of the president’s staff had grown distant, and Christine had surprisingly agreed to several proposals Hardison was certain she’d vehemently oppose. Hardison took advantage of Christine’s unusual pliability this afternoon, circling back to a proposal she’d refused to endorse three years earlier; a reorganization of the nation’s numerous intelligence agencies.
As much as Hardison relished his newfound success, he missed the old Christine. Without her infuriating opposition on almost every issue, coming to work each day had become less . . . fun. As he reviewed the document before him, he realized he’d scheduled this meeting for opposing purposes. If Christine’s new trend held, he’d obtain her endorsement for a key policy proposal—one the president would be sure to push forward with Christine on board. However, she’d made her position on the issue clear during previous meetings, practically throwing Hardison out of her office the last time he brought it up. He was certain Christine’s bona fides would surface this afternoon when he pressed the matter.
“So,” Hardison said. “I take it you agree with the restructuring?”
“I’ll consider it,” Christine replied, with no hint of the icy tone he expected.
Hardison contemplated his next move as the aide typed notes into her laptop. He focused again on Christine, who was staring out one of the triple-paned, bomb-resistant windows in his office. The fresh scar across her cheek was faintly visible. His eyes went to her wrists; the cuts had likewise healed. Although Christine hadn’t shared the details, the CIA report had painted a clear enough picture: Christine handcuffed to a pipe above her head as she was tormented by Semyon Gorev, the director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. Hardison wondered what Christine had thought when Gorev slid his pistol barrel into her mouth. The emotions that must have flooded her body as he slowly squeezed the trigger.
There had been no bullets in the pistol, part of Gorev’s sadistic torment. A few hours later, Christine had somehow reversed the roles, jamming a gun into Gorev’s mouth. Then she blew his brains out.
The aide finished her notes and looked up. Christine was still staring out the window.
Hardison turned to the aide. “Excuse us for a few minutes. I need to talk with Miss O’Connor privately.”
The aide pushed back from the table and the movement caught Christine’s attention, interrupting her reverie.
When they were alone, Hardison said, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Why do you ask?”
“You haven’t been yourself the last few weeks.”
She folded her arms across her chest. “I’m fine.” This time, her voice had an edge to it.
“You’re not fine. It’s obvious you’re still dealing with what happened in Russia. It’s affecting your work.”
“I don’t have time for this,” Christine said. Her eyes went to the aide’s empty seat. “Are we done?”
“We’re not done. I know you don’t consider me a friend—”
“Because you’re not.”
“—but I do care about you a tiny bit. You need to take some time off. Clear your head.”
Christine leaned forward, placing her hands on the edge of the table. “I don’t need your psychoanalysis. I’m doing just fine.”
Hardison collected his thoughts. It was pointless to continue. There was too much animosity between them. Deservedly so, he had to admit.
“You’re right,” Hardison said. “You’re doing just fine. That’s all I have for today.”
Christine stood and grabbed her notepad, then left without a word.
Christine tossed her notepad on her desk, then settled into her chair. She stared at the dark computer display for a moment, reviewing her conversation with Hardison. She hadn’t realized it was so obvious. Her thoughts turned to what had occurred in Russia, then to Ice Station Nautilus. To what she’d done to her good friend Captain Steve Brackman, the president’s former senior military aide. Former, as in deceased. Thanks to Christine. She went back even further to her imprisonment in the bowels of China’s Great Hall of the People, then to her townhouse where she lay on the floor as a man tried to drive a knife through her neck.
This wasn’t what she had signed up for. She was supposed to be a White House advisor whose confrontations were limited to those across a conference room table. Not those requiring a semiautomatic pistol, especially one shoved into her mouth or someone else’s. What had occurred in Russia, along with her pending trip to Moscow in two weeks—she was the primary U.S. nuclear arms negotiator—weighed heavily on her mind.
She woke the computer, then selected her personal folder. Her hands hovered over the keyboard as she examined nine versions of an almost identical document, each one beginning with—Letter of Resignation. She opened the latest one, read it twice, then hit Print. She signed the letter and placed it in a folder. After a moment of indecision, she took a deep breath, then headed down the seventy-foot-long blue-carpeted hallway toward the Oval Office.
The president’s secretary looked up when Christine entered her office. “Is the president available?” Christine asked.
The secretary checked the president’s schedule. “He’s open for the next ten minutes. Will that be enough time?”
Christine nodded. The secretary knocked on the president’s door and inquired. After his response, the secretary stepped aside and Christine entered the Oval Office.
The president was at his desk, framed by towering colonnade windows providing a view of the Rose Garden and South Lawn. He put down the document he was reading.
“Afternoon, Christine,” he said, gesturing toward the three chairs in front of his desk.
Christine took one of the proffered seats, gripping the folder on her lap with both hands. There must have been something in her body language, because the president leaned back in his chair and pushed his glasses above his forehead, studying her carefully. He waited for her to begin.
“I apologize for the interruption,” she said, unsure of how to broach the subject. After a quick reflection on the issue, she decided to start at the beginning.
“I want to thank you for the opportunity you provided, choosing me as your national security advisor. I appreciate your faith in my ability and your willingness to look beyond my party affiliation. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working for you and I hope you’ll consider me again if another opportunity arises in the future.”
There was no response from the president, so she continued. “In the last three years, I’ve ended up in situations that go far beyond what I expected. I’ve done things that violate my core principles. I’m not sure what I stand for anymore.”
Her eyes went to the folder, then she handed it to him.
After reading the letter, the president said, “I must admit that you’ve been forced to make difficult decisions. But I think you’re being too harsh on yourself. I can’t express how impressed I am with how well you’ve handled yourself in these challenging situations.” He paused for a moment, then said, “Let’s work on keeping you out of trouble from now on.”
The president closed the folder and pushed it across the desk toward Christine. “I’d like you to reconsider.”
Christine leaned forward, pushing the folder slowly back to the president.
“Are you sure about this?” he asked.
She wasn’t sure, but Hardison was right. She needed to step away for a while.
“I am, Mr. President.”
The president leaned back in his chair again and folded his hands across his waist. “You’ve provided a two-week notice. I have another idea. You’ve worked hard on the new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, establishing important personal relationships. I’d like you to continue as my national security advisor until the final details have been hammered out.”
“That could take months,” Christine replied.
“How about this: two months or when the agreement is final, whichever comes first?”
Christine contemplated the offer. The rationale was sound, but the meetings alternated between the two countries. After what she’d done on the shore of the Black Sea, returning to Russia didn’t sound like a good idea.
“Can we conduct all future meetings in the United States?”
“I think that can be arranged,” the president replied, “but I don’t think there’s anything to worry about if you meet in Russia. Diplomatic relations have returned to normal and Russia is currently on their best behavior. Plus, President Kalinin assured me there will be no retribution for what you did in Russia.”
“I wasn’t aware of Kalinin’s assurance.”
“I considered mentioning it, but since you’ve avoided the subject, I decided not to.”
Christine appreciated the president’s thoughtfulness, but the issue had never been far from her mind.
“Two months?” Christine asked.
“Two months. And if you happen to change your mind in the meantime, you may withdraw your resignation.”
“You’re just stringing me along, hoping I’ll change my mind.”
“I am.” The president smiled.
Christine stared at the folder on the president’s desk as she contemplated his offer. Two months. It gave the president plenty of time to hire a new NSA, plus it provided an opportunity to finish what she’d started—a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.
“I agree,” she said. “Two months or a new treaty, whichever comes first.”
“Excellent,” the president replied. “Now why don’t you spend some time annoying Hardison. You’ve been far too amenable lately.”
It was Christine’s turn to smile. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Russian President Yuri Kalinin took his seat at the head of the Kremlin conference table, populated by the same men who had joined him the previous day: Defense Minister Nechayev, Foreign Minister Lavrov, plus Chief of the General Staff Sergei Andropov and the commanders of the Russian Ground Forces, Aerospace Forces, and Navy.
“What is the status?” Kalinin asked.
Defense Minister Nechayev replied, “Alexander failed the test.”
“What is the prognosis for correcting the issue?”
Nechayev looked to Fleet Admiral Oleg Lipovsky, who answered defensively, “We are pushing the boundaries of both physics and technology. The challenges are significant and we’ve overcome most of them.”
“I understand the issues,” Kalinin replied. “Will there be a solution anytime soon?”
Lipovsky shook his head. “The next proposal will require dry-docking Alexander to retrofit some of the components. That will take several months.”
General Andropov joined in. “We do not need the Alexander class. The Zolotov option is sufficient. We have the opportunity to demonstrate our capability in three weeks, and we must take advantage of it. We don’t know when the next opportunity will occur.”
“I’m uncomfortable with the Zolotov option,” Kalinin replied. “We don’t know how the Americans will respond, and if the situation spirals out of control, the consequences would be dire.”
“The Americans won’t respond,” Andropov insisted. “That’s the point of the Zolotov option. They will be paralyzed, providing an opportunity to reestablish our border security.”
Kalinin replied, “Perhaps we should be content with our current border situation.”
Disapproving looks formed on each man’s face. Kalinin contemplated the issue and the events that had shaped his advisors’ perspectives.
The painful memories of World War II, referred to as the Great Patriotic War within Russia, weighed heavily on the Russian psyche, something the West seemed incapable of understanding. The United States, for example, extolled its Greatest Generation—those who fought in World War II—along with their enormous sacrifice: over 400,000 dead. A sacrifice that paled in comparison with the Soviet Union’s: seven million military personnel killed, along with twenty million civilians as the German Army exterminated ethnic groups during their occupation and razed entire cities to the ground as they retreated.
And those were the casualties from just the last invasion by a Western European power. First the Poles in the seventeenth century, followed by Napoleon’s army in the nineteenth century, with both armies sacking Moscow.
Following World War II, the Soviet Union took precautions to ensure it would never again endure the genocide of its people or the destruction of its cities, establishing a buffer zone of friendly Eastern European governments. The next time the West invaded Russia, there’d be advance warning as troops moved through the Eastern European countries on Russia’s border. Next time, the war would be fought on another country’s soil. Unfortunately, the buffer zone had eroded since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Baltic States had joined NATO, and now Ukraine and Finland, also on Russia’s western border, were considering joining the Alliance. Numerous Russian experts were sounding the alarm. It was time Russia recreated a buffer zone of friendly provinces to the west, even if that meant employing its military. Two months ago, Kalinin had authorized a bold move, seizing portions of Lithuania and Ukraine, implementing a plot to keep NATO from intervening. The plan had succeeded at first, but America had reversed the table, forcing Russia to withdraw in humiliating fashion.
“Doing nothing would be a mistake,” Andropov said. “NATO will continue to encroach on our borders and you will lose the election. Bold action is required to rectify both situations.”
Kalinin considered the general’s words. Andropov wasn’t the first person to leverage the nation’s fears of a NATO invasion, as well as Kalinin’s election concern. Former Defense Minister Chernov had done so, convincing him to authorize the invasion of Ukraine and Lithuania. It hadn’t gone well. Andropov was insisting on a second round, implementing a different strategy to prevent the United States from intervening.
The proposed plan was too risky. A cornered animal with no chance of escape would often lash out. That was something Russia—and the rest of the world—could not afford. Kalinin was convinced the West didn’t understand Russians, and after Russia’s attempt to blackmail the United States had backfired, it was clear that Russians didn’t understand Americans. There was simply no way to know how the American president would respond. Finally, Kalinin made his decision.
“We will not proceed. The Zolotov option is too drastic, and without the Alexander class to provide additional insurance against an American response, the scenario is too volatile.”
Kalinin pushed back from the table. “Thank you for your input.”