But by late afternoon, there was still no sign of the Americans.
Ma Qiang was on the video teleconference again, updating Minister Chiang as to the disposition of his forces, which at that moment were deployed in a racetrack formation extending over dozens of nautical miles. As Ma Qiang spoke of current conditions at sea, Lin Bao glanced surreptitiously at his watch.
“Why are you looking at your watch?” snapped Minster Chiang, interrupting the briefing.
Lin Bao felt his face turn red.
“Do you have somewhere else to be?”
“No, Comrade Minister. Nowhere else to be.”
Minister Chiang nodded back toward Ma Qiang, who continued on with his briefing, while Lin Bao settled exhaustedly into his chair. His carpool had left fifteen minutes before. He had no idea how he would get home.
04:27 APRIL 26, 2034 (GMT+5:30)
The phone rang. “Are you up?”
“I’m up now.”
“It’s bad, Sandy.”
“What’s bad?” he asked Hendrickson, swallowing the dryness from his throat as he rubbed his eyes, his vision slowly coming into focus so he could read the digital display of his alarm clock.
“The Ford and the Miller, they’re gone.”
“What do you mean gone?”
“They got the drop on us, or shut us down, or I don’t even know how to describe it. Reports are nothing worked. We were blind. When we launched our planes, their avionics froze, their navigation systems glitched out and were then overridden. Pilots couldn’t eject. Missiles wouldn’t fire. Dozens of our aircraft plunged into the water. Then they came at us with everything. A carrier, frigates and destroyers, diesel and nuclear submarines, swarms of unmanned torpedo boats, hypersonic cruise missiles with total stealth, offensive cyber. We’re still piecing it all together. The whole thing happened middle of last night … Christ, Sandy, she was right.”
“Who was right?”
“Sarah—Sarah Hunt. I saw her weeks ago when I was in Yokosuka.” Chowdhury knew that the board of inquiry had cleared Hunt of all culpability in the Battle of Mischief Reef and the loss of her flotilla, but he also knew the Navy had wanted to consign her defeat to a fluke. That would be far easier than taking a hard look at the circumstances that led to it. It would now be impossible for the Navy—or the nation—to ignore a disaster on this scale. Thirty-seven warships destroyed. Thousands of sailors perished.
“How did we do?” Chowdhury asked tentatively. “Did our long-range air score any hits? How many of theirs did we sink?”
“None,” said Hendrickson.
The line went silent for a moment. “I’ve heard that we might have scored a hit on their carrier, the Zheng He, but we didn’t sink any of their ships.”
“My God,” said Chowdhury. “How’s Wisecarver reacting?”
He was up now, his bedside lamp on, stepping into each leg of his trousers, which he’d draped over the back of a chair. He’d arrived at these bland quarters in the embassy’s visitors’ annex two days before. While Chowdhury dressed, Hendrickson explained that the news hadn’t yet leaked to the public: One of the benefits of the blackout the Chinese had employed was that it allowed the administration to control the news, or at least to control it until the Chinese used that information against them. Which they had, strangely, not yet done.
Hendrickson explained that the White House had succumbed to panic. “Jesus, what will the country say?” had been the president’s response on hearing the news. Trent Wisecarver had contacted NORAD and elevated the threat level to DEFCON 2, with a request to the president to elevate it to DEFCON 1. In an emergency meeting of the National Security Council he had also requested preemptive authorization for a tactical nuclear launch against the Zheng He Carrier Battle Group, provided it could be found and targeted. Remarkably, his request had not been rejected outright. The president, who only days before had wanted to de-escalate tensions, was now entertaining such a strike.