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Phoenix Sub Zero



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… Take heed in your manner of speaking That the language ye use may be sound, In the list of the words of your choosing “Impossible’ may not be found …




Wednesday, Christmas Day

The Hiroshima missile dived for the desert floor and armed the final detonator train of the Scorpion warhead. After a descent through the low clouds, the missile broke out into the clear over the abandoned town of Bajram-Ali, Turkmenistan.

A few hundred meters east of the town center and mosque, the missile’s high explosive detonated.

The explosion, in its first millisecond, ruptured a bag of vinyl acetate monomer mixed with a dozen other chemical components; in the next it ruptured a high-pressure bottle of ethylene gas, the chemicals mixing and reacting in the high temperatures and pressures of the fireball; finally the pressure pulse reached a bag of finely ground iron filings. The explosion scattered the filings as it spread, 1,000 meters above Bajram-Ali. The iron filings drifted to the town below.

As they did, the reacting chemicals from the missile formed a thin milky atomized liquid that rained down and wetted the buildings and streets. Ten minutes later, the milky chemicals had dried into a sticky glue. The iron filings, mixed in with the glue, were stuck to the surfaces of the streets and roofs and walls of the decaying structures. Within 1,000 meters of the Hiroshima missile detonation, iron filings were glued to every horizontal and vertical surface.

An hour later a small army of technicians took the town apart, digging samples from the road, cutting bricks out of building walls, running metal detectors along pavement, deploying fire hoses to try to wash off the glue and its iron filings.

The glue resisted all attempts to rinse it away.

Late that evening, an urgent encrypted radio message was transmitted to the United Islamic Front of God headquarters stating that the weapon test had been a great success, promising that when the iron filings of the Scorpion test warhead were replaced by highly radioactive and poisonous plutonium, doped with cobalt-60, the target town would be so contaminated that it would have to be abandoned for 20,000 years, and that every soul within two kilometers of ground zero would die a slow, painful and ugly death of radiation poisoning, all accomplished with only a fraction of the plutonium needed to build the smallest nuclear weapon.

The message concluded that when the Scorpion warhead was employed against the target American city— Washington, D. C., at the moment — the course of the world war would be turned, and victory would soon be forthcoming.

* * *

On the other side of the world, on the fourth deck of the Pentagon the chief of naval operations, Adm. Richard Donchez, picked up the six-month-old memo he’d written to the president and read it with mixed emotions, part amusement that he had been dead right, part regret that its recommendations had been ignored. Its four dry pages of thick Pentagonese had advocated assassinating Gen. Mohammed al-Sihoud, dictator and leader of a thirty-nation coalition called the United Islamic Front of God, spanning all of North Africa, most of the Arabian peninsula, and half of Asia. At the time, Sihoud had just begun the invasion of India after already swallowing Chad and Ethiopia in a month-long blitz.

Had the memo’s decapitation assault been implemented when it was proposed, the war would never have gotten out of hand. But it had, and finally, after India had appealed to the United Nations, America and the major nations of Europe had formed the Western Coalition and declared war on Sihoud’s United Islamic Front. After endless preparations for the invasions, the war had turned into a bloody three-front meat-grinder of a ground war, as Donchez had predicted.

And now, a half-year late. President Dawson had ordered Donchez to propose the Navy’s “most innovative recommendations” to win the war quickly. Donchez had considered giving him the old assassination memo back, the central ideas still viable, but had not out of tact. Finally, Monday, the president had given his approval to take out General Sihoud. Donchez had proposed that Operation Early Retirement commence immediately, Christmas Day, but the president had balked at killing the general on a holy day.

Donchez relented, ordering the operation to commence on the day after Christmas, two minutes after midnight local time, making it late afternoon of Christmas Day eastern standard time.

Donchez propped his feet up on the huge desk, put his hands behind his bald head and looked out the windows at the snowy landscape of the Potomac River below, the familiar Washington skyline, the vista lonely on Christmas, the town’s workers and lawyers and politicians home with their families. In another half hour, the operation would commence, starting with the liftoff of a cargo jet full of Navy Sea/Air/Land commandos and the firing of sea-launched Javelin cruise missiles at Sihoud in his headquarters bunkers.

By early afternoon Thursday, Donchez expected to hold a press conference reporting the death of General-and-Khalib Mohammed al-Sihoud, and with him, the end of a war that had the potential to kill millions of Americans.

Donchez stared out the window for some moments, deciding to wade through his urgent paperwork during the time he must wait before the decapitation assault against Sihoud kicked off. He took his feet off the desk and rifled through a file marked vortex missile test — exercise BONECRUSHER — AUTEC SUBMARINE VS. SUBMARINE LIVE FIRE. After he read it, he put it back on the desk, ran his hand across his bald scalp, his face an annoyed frown, and picked up the phone.

* * *

Michael Pacino sat back in the deep recliner in front of the fireplace, the Virginia Beach weather finally cool enough to justify lighting the fire. For the last hour he had dozed, waiting for Christmas dinner, falling into a deep sleep. His face twitched and beaded with sweat as he dreamt, his sleeping visions obviously troubled.

When the phone jangled he sat up, his eyes wide, the room slowly coming into focus, Janice’s low Southern accent distant as she answered the call. By the time she asked him to pick up the phone, his heart rate had slowed to its normal rhythm. He climbed out of the easy chair and walked to the phone, wondering what his duty officer wanted on a slow holiday afternoon. His submarine, the USS Seawolf, sat inert and helpless in a shipyard drydock, a gaping hullcut opened in her flank, her torpedo room brutalized by the shipyard workers and the overgrown Vortex missile tubes being jammed in. It seemed a crime that in the middle of a hot war on the other side of the world, the most advanced submarine in the U.S.—

“Captain Pacino,” he said curtly into the phone, expecting a young lieutenant to report another problem. But it wasn’t the ship calling.

“Mikey,” Admiral Donchez’s voice boomed in Pacino’s ear. “Merry Christmas.”

Hillary Janice Pacino, a slim attractive woman with golden hair curling halfway down her back, lit a cigarette and listened to the phone conversation in the background, her expression growing steadily unhappy as it became obvious that Pacino would be leaving. Thirty seconds after the conversation ended, right on cue, he appeared in the kitchen.

“Where to this time?” she asked, her voice surprisingly calm.

“AUTEC. Bahamas test range. Donchez’s Vortex missile test. He wants me to watch. His jet is picking me up in two hours.”

“On Christmas Day?”

“The missile test goes down tomorrow.”

“What’s the big rush? It’s not like you’re going to war. If there was one Christmas I thought you’d make, it was this year. Your ship is in the dock and you’re being relieved in two months. Why are you going now? Because the chief of naval operations asks and you jump?”

“No. Because Dick Donchez asks and I jump. We still have time for dinner.”

“How long?”

“Two days, maybe three.”

Pacino watched as his wife clammed up and began moving around the room, banging pots and plates. He climbed the stairs and packed a bag, wondering himself why a weapon test was so important that he had to drop everything on Christmas Day to see it.

Ten minutes later he stood in front of the television, the news channel reported on the Coalition invasion of southern Iran. Pacino bit his lip in frustration, wondering for the hundredth time why Seawolf had to sit out the war. If he had to be away on Christmas, he thought, it could at least be to take the ship on a mission. He thought about his old captain, Rocket Ron Daminski, who was now on patrol in the Mediterranean aboard the Augusta, there since Thanksgiving, probably spending the holiday watching old movies in the wardroom and complaining bitterly about being at sea, driving his crew crazy.

Too bad, Pacino thought, there was nothing for a sub to do during the ground war except poke holes in the ocean. Or so it seemed.


Chapter 1
Thursday, 26 December


The Javelin cruise missile blew out of the dark water of the Mediterranean, momentarily frozen in space above an angry cloud of spray until the weapon’s rocket motor ignited in a violent fireball, hurling the missile skyward with an agonizingly bright flame trail.


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