Cover image for Invasion
Harry, Eric L.
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Publication Information:
New York : Jove Books, [2000]

Physical Description:
567 pages ; 18 cm
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X Adult Mass Market Paperback Central Closed Stacks

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Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Harry's most recent thriller (after Protect and Defend) presents a powerful portrait of modern-day politics gone wild. U.S. Republican President Bill Baker is thrown a curveball when China puts its plan of world dominance into action. After invading Asian, European and finally Caribbean territory, it's obvious that four thousand miles of ocean is not enough to keep North America safe from China. The siege begins, and Baker retaliates by declaring war on China. As if this staggering situation weren't enough, Harry juxtaposes this scenario with the personal implications raised by the presence of the president's patriotic teenage daughter, Stephie Roberts, in the U.S. Army. Problems arise when Stephie's mother (the president's ex-wife) insists that her daughter be removed from danger--though not before Stephie's relationship with young Chinese army Lieutenant Wu surfaces. Without indulging in techno-babble, Harry displays a remarkable grasp of infantry tactics and weapons, and his graphic descriptions of battles and sorties will entertain and intrigue. Questionable exaggerations notwithstanding, the book will satisfy those looking for a thrilling escape into the world of disasters waiting to happen. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Mobile, Alabama September 14 // 1640 Local Time "You recognize anything?" Peter Scott asked Stephie over the radio as they patrolled the beach. The voice of the boy from Michigan had quivered noticeably.     Stephie looked at the faded blue trash cans that dotted the saccharine sand. A fireworks stand was boarded with plywood. The rusting bungee-jumping tower was the dominant fixture on the beach. Stephie swallowed the lump in her throat, pressed the TALK buttom on the control stick, and said, "Yeah." Simmons snapped, "Off the fucking net!"     The breeze off the water carried the sounds of the surf as it had always had. The scent of lush salt air was, to Stephie, the smell of home. Home , she thought. Her house was only a short distance up the road, but her home seemed far away. It wasn't a town, but a time, and it seemed lost forever.     The next stop on the road was Stephie's street.     They halted on the highway by the entrance to the treeless, planned community. Stephie had never seen her neighborhood like this before. No cars, no people, no life. But the houses were familiar. Sally Hampton had been Stephie's closest friend as a child. The windows of Sally's house were grimy and the grass in her yard a foot tall and brown like the weeds in the dunes. Sally should just now be getting out of basic training in the navy. And there was the Brubecks' house. They hadn't taken the time to haul their boat off. It leaned on its side against a peeling wall. Its white fiberglass hull had been riddled with bullets, rendered useless, Stephie supposed, by some previous passing patrol. Both of the two Brubeck boys--jocks at Stephie's high school--were Marines. One was stranded on Oahu; one was dead or a POW in Cuba.     And there was Stephie's house. Like the others, it sat atop stilts. Only the carport and the storage room were on ground level. Stephie could hardly bear to look at it, but at the same time felt her gaze drawn to it, searching for sights both familiar and changed. "All right, First Squad," Collins said on returning from a caucus with Lieutenant Ackerman. "We're up. Let's do this right."     Kurth stepped to the fore. "This is my map of the minefields along this shore," he announced as he held the folded map in the air. He placed it under the body armor of Sergeant Collins, their young squad leader, and patted the Kevlar on Simmons's chest. "Do not leave this behind."     "Yes, Staff Sergeant," were the unanimous replies from the squad.     They dropped their heavy packs and proceeded into Stephie's neighborhood with only combat loads--rifles, grenades, ammo, canteens, and first aid kits--hanging from their webbing. Stephie felt as if she were walking on the moon.     She considered informing Collins that they were approaching her childhood home. That she had lived every day of her eighteen years in the stucco house on Sea Sprite Drive. That she knew every nook, every cranny, every hiding place in the cluster of twenty-year-old homes. But the words were stuck in her throat. We really don't own our house anymore , she reasoned. The bank had evicted them while Stephie was in boot camp. After twenty years of paying the mortgage, her unemployed stepfather had simply packed up and moved north like everyone else along the coast after the naval debacle in the Straits of Havana. Like all the real estate in the area, her mother had written her, the house was now worthless. "It never was worth as much as we paid for it" was her mother's throw-away comment, which had triggered a torrent of sobs as an angry Stephie lay in bunk after lights out. That was my home! she screamed, but only in her mind.     They proceeded single file down the street, which was still warm from the oven of the mid-afternoon sun. Four months ago, on Stephie's last trip home, it had been alive with kids beginning summer vacation. There had been boisterous play, music, and mothers calling their children to dinner. Everything had changed in the four months since the awful disaster at sea.     No one said a word as the soldiers nervously watched the mirrored windows for signs of movement. The street made a big U, with the base of the U resting on beachfront property. That's where Stephie's house was. At the bottom of the U, they made the turn. The breeze was stiff and heavy with humidity. Peter Scott was walking point. When he reached Stephie's driveway, he stopped at their shell-covered, concrete mailbox. Sergeant Collins made his way up to Scott, then pointed at Stephie and waved for her to join them.     Collins pointed at the plaque reading The Roberts Family as he scrutinized Kurth's minefield map. "This your house?" he asked. Stephie nodded. Scott said, "See? I tol' ya." Collins pointed at the houses--one, two, three, he counted from the turn in the U--and then did the same on the map. One, two, three. "Well, it's safe," Collins decided. "But stay away from that one," he said, pointing two doors further down at Dr. Rodriguez's.     Stephie couldn't help thinking that Collins should have looked at the map before marching down the street.     "You wanta ... take a look around?" Collins offered. Stephie shrugged, then nodded. Collins tasked her fire team--Sanders, Johnson, and Scott--to accompany her, then radioed an explanation to the LT.     Stephie hurried into the cool shade of the carport before Ackerman could countermand the offer. "This is yors? " Johnson asked in disbelief. Stephie decided not to tell him about the foreclosure. "Man, I didn't know you was rich. I thought you was a farmer or somethin'. This changes the whole situation. What's yer stepdaddy do?" Stephie told him he was an engineer--which was still true, even though he remained unemployed--then turned to peer through the grimy glass of the door. The darkened stairwell leading up to the kitchen looked lifeless and distant, but when she closed her eyes, she could smell the home-cooked meal that always greeted her just inside. The door, she found, was locked.     "You mean you could just walk out to the motherfuckin' beach ?" Corporal Johnson yelled from the small backyard. "You didn't even have to cross no highway? Man, on my only trip to the beach when I was a kid, I burned the shit outa my feet on that hot motherfuckin' highway." Stephie could see in the window's reflection that he was staring at the blue water.     "Let's get goin'!" Sergeant Collins shouted from the street, not willing, if he didn't have to, to leak even the faint radio signals of their short-range tac net for fear of some high altitude, loitering missile.     Stephie blinked to dry her eyes and compose herself, but when she turned they all stared at her anyway. Scott said, "Hey, I ... I found this over there. You want it?" He dropped a pink plastic ring with fake jewels into Stephie's hand. It was part of a bucket of jewelry Stephie had gotten as a child. One by one the colorful treasures had been swallowed up in the sand. She and Sally Hampton had taken turns overacting as they romantically asked for each other's hand in marriage. The game was to draw "Ou-us" of disgust or excitement depending on which boy they revealed themselves to be in the end. Stephie dropped the ring into the cargo pocket of her camo trousers and bit her upper lip to rein in her fury and her tears. Her buddies lent mostly clumsy words of support, far missing the mark. Johnson put his arm around Stephie's shoulder. "Hey, it's okay," he said over and over. " Fuck the Chinese, man. We gonna kick they motherfuckin' asses!"     Grunts of "Yeah!" and curses of "Fuckin' A!" came from Scott and Sanders. Stephie smiled.     "We gonna make the world safe again," Johnson said, "so rich white folk like you can live in fine houses on the motherfuckin' beach !"     "Not on this beach," Scott commented on their way back to the street. "Did you see that map? They'll never find all them landmines in the sand."     Sanders asked, "So whatta ya think they got rigged up in that house?" He nodded at the Rodriguezes'.     Peter Scott, studying the structure, said, "I'd guess about a ton of C9 covered in half a ton or so of concrete and about a thousand of those real big nails."     Johnson drew his head back and said, "You're one of those fuckin' deranged white kids from the suburbs, I can tell. My momma warned me about people like you. How'd you get outa high school without shootin' the place up?"     They continued their loop around the U, crossing the street on passing the Rodriguezes'.     By the time Stephie's squad returned to the highway, the entire platoon had heard of Stephie's visit home. They all had words or looks of sympathy, even guys she hardly knew. Lieutenant Ackerman came up and asked if she were okay. Stephie shrugged and mumbled a noncommittal answer. Truth was, she ached to go back to her house, close the door to her room, and curl up in her bed. But the sun was low and noticeably redder. Darkness was fast approaching. The beach was a dangerous place at night.     The march back toward the trucks began uneventfully. They had already covered that stretch, and the sights had grown familiar. Plus there was the exhaustion. The feeling that your body--head to toe--was running on empty. Stephie's head grew light just as her legs grew heavy. The simple act of breathing seemed to take all her might. The blisters on her feet seemed to sprout new blisters, and her ankles hurt where she walked awkwardly to avoid the pain on her soles like a car with a flat tire running on the rims. She began to long for a halt to the steady, slow march. She watched Ackerman, expecting him to raise his hand at any moment. The sight of him calling for a break swam in and out of the swirl of images both real and imagined. She slung her rifle over her shoulder and pulled a canteen from its pouch to quench her parched mouth.     As she raised the plastic threads to her lips for her first sip of the tepid water, half a dozen automatic weapons opened fire at close range. She dashed to the side of the road in a crouch hitting her quick release and diving unencumbered by pack into the sand. The eruption of noise was stunning. She was totally unprepared. Guns were louder when fired straight at you.     The Chinese guns sprayed the road. The first shouts were not commands, but, " Medic! " Stephie rose and ran inland as bullets slaughtered the people who'd dropped onto the pavement.     Grenades exploded with searing flashes and whizzing shrapnel. Screams of agony and of " Medic! " filled the air. All Stephie could think was three more steps. Then two. Then one. Then she collapsed onto her belly. Then up again and run until one, then dive into the sand. Over and over. Over and over.     They never fired at her, which gave her the idea, maybe, to move a little closer to the enemy.     "Medic!" screamed the tortured casualties in the distance. The Chinese fire was focused on maximizing kills.     At the end of one dash, she dropped behind a thin spray of weeds just underneath a deadly sheet of fire. The fire slammed into the mound of sand collected among the weeds, which now gave her life. She lay on her stomach. Her helmet, face, and body pressed flat in the sand. The fire lessened, then moved on. Somehow she had lived.     When she raised her head, a splash of sand from a sliding soldier sent grit into her eyes. The guy drew Chinese fire. She cursed and spat and scraped painfully at the grains that stuck to her sweaty, sunburned face. Before she could open her eyes she heard the crack-crack-crack of an M-16. It was Burns, kneeling beside her, firing two aimed rounds per second.     She was glad for the reinforcements.     Her weapon was covered in sand, and she frantically brushed it. She flicked the selector to "semi" while Burns was reloading and slowly peered over her low cover. They would see her helmet, she knew, before she would see them.     Burns dove onto her under a roar of fire whistling through the wet air just above him. He moved. He wasn't dead. He rose and quickly resumed firing three-round bursts as fast as he could pull the trigger. She tried to rise again. He flattened her. "Cut that out !" she shouted, fending off his hand.     Animal's machine gun opened up from nearer the road.     Stephie rolled away and sprinted for the next dune further inland. The Chinese were heads down under Animal's fire. She slid to a stop.     The Chinese opened fire again on Burns. He was pinned where she had been behind a small exploding dune.     From Stephie's slightly higher elevation, she could see the boots of a prone Chinese soldier. She tore off again, rising higher up the dune and diving into the sand. The Chinese fire arrived with a vengence. She couldn't raise her head until they finally gave up firing at her, and then she waited an awful few seconds more.     She slowly lifted her right eye. Nothing but weeds, at first, then a thin topping of sand that wouldn't come close to stopping a bullet. Finally, she could see the lower torsos of two prone enemy soldiers.     To her left came her platoon's counterattack. A trail of five dead or writhing Americans led to four nearly equally luckless guys who were left to continue the direct frontal assault on the enemy. They dashed and dove and dug. One man rose and hurled a hand grenade thirty meters, but the enemy was fifty meters away. Fifty meters of open ground that the poor bastards had yet to traverse.     Stephie raised her rifle to her shoulder but wrapped her finger around the trigger to the grenade launcher slung underneath. Her right hand grasped the rifle's magazine guide like a pistol grip. Her eye was lowered to the sights. She had registered the highest score in her training platoon on the grenade range. Her left hand cradled the round launcher. She raised the elevation slightly. Two hundred meters . She applied a light touch to the trigger.     The grenade thumped out of the tube and sent the rifle solidly back into her shoulder. Stephie carefully maintained the tube' s elevation and watched intently for her round to fall. She simultaneously loaded another thick grenade by feel. The explosion sent flame from a crater ten feet behind the Chinese. As she slapped the launcher's breech closed, the enemy soldiers scrambled to train their weapons on her. Rounds cut through the air all around. She lowered the elevation a hair. She was firing directly, not indirectly like a mortar.     Thump!     She dove to her side into the sand as the first bullets arrived.     Her round went off. Its slap ended all enemy fire.     She lifted her head. Two Chinese soldiers lay in the open, rolled onto either side away from the burst, in which they had come apart. The Americans attacking their position rose on shouted command and dashed forward. Stephie, John Burns, and a dozen other riflemen riddled the wounded or dead with heavy fire.     The maneuver team hurled hand grenades through the air and dropped again to their bellies. This time, the pineapple-shaped devices lit the enemy redoubt with a half dozen explosions.     Everyone ceased fire on Ackerman's radio command as the three men and one woman reached the smoking dune and fired bursts straight at the ground beneath them.     The air was suddenly alive with helicopters. Gunships, medevacs, and scouts swarmed over the fallen, who littered the site of the disastrous firefight. They began putting down all around.     A chorus of cries of "Medic!" were clearly audible despite the noise of the engines.     Stephie and John rushed down to the road. Men and women writhed on the pavement untended. Some had managed to press half-opened bandage packs to gaping wounds that looked to have randomly opened their bodies. Others lay dead, never having succeeded in getting the packs open.     "Medic!" "I'm hit!" "Oh-God-Oh-God!" "Help! I need help!" "Medic!" "Medic!"     Stephie's head rocked back as she suddenly lost her equilibrium. She had to regain her balance before she fell. Burns and surviving medics rushed among the wounded as medevac helicopters belched flight-suited medical personnel. There was so much to do that Stephie was paralyzed staring at people who screamed for help or lay ominously quiet with wide glassy eyes in enormous pools of blood.     Stephie ran to and knelt beside the nearest wounded soldier. She was an African-American woman from Third Squad. About Stephie's age. Trying unsuccessfully to raise her head to peer down at the shattered left forearm that she cradled. Each time, her helmetless head threatened to slam back down onto the pavement. She was disoriented from pain, blood loss, and shock.     Stephie raised the woman's head and lay it in her lap, remaining careful to ensure that her arm blocked the woman's sight of her wound. She got a bandage from the wounded woman's first aid kit and gently pulled the woman's right hand free of her left forearm.     Her wounded left arm moved unnaturally. Disconnected. A shouted moan suddenly erupted from the wounded woman. The pain or the psychological agony had awakened the poor woman. She now twisted and screamed and fought.     "Me-edi-i-ic!" Stephie screeched as she fought back. "It's gonna be okay! It's gonna be okay! It's gonna be okay!" she fought with words, but the woman thrashed her head from side to side.     Thankfully, paramedics wearing jumpsuits and flight helmets arrived. Stephie held the woman's head and mouthed soothing lies as the two medics gave the woman a shot of painkiller. Stephie wanted not to watch as they cut the sleeve away, but felt compelled to study how they took care of the woman. She felt wave after overwhelming wave of nausea, but she forced herself to do it.     When they lifted the wounded woman onto a stretcher, Stephie remained seated in the pool of the woman's blood. It had taken six or seven minutes until the evac was done. It had been an eternity spent with that woman and her arm.     Suddenly, as if waking from a slumber and finding herself soiled, Stephie felt revulsion and wanted desperately to wash the blood from her hands. She found that her canteen pouch was empty. She must have dropped her canteen when the ambush began. She rose and began to search the road for her canteen. Piles of equipment lay strewn all about. Blood dried black on the road's hot pavement. Both the unharmed and the lightly wounded sat slumped low to the ground like survivors of some great crash. The collision of two armies in war.     Stephie passed canteen after canteen amid the litter of gear until she found hers, which had emptied onto the pavement. When she replaced it in its pouch, she was surprised to find that she had two other canteens on her belt and wondered why she hadn't realized that before.     She washed her hands in a canteen's warm water. John Burns walked up. "Don't waste that water," he said. "You never know how long we'll be out here."     "But we're going straight back to our camp," she said.     He cocked his head and arched his eyebrows scoldingly. "You never assume that," he said, "if you're infantry." He stood so close that the pinkish water dripped from her hands onto his sandy trousers and dusty boots. His face was only inches from hers. "Don't be so stupid," he whispered angrily. "You almost got yourself killed."     With those words of reproach or of warning--Stephie didn't know which--he moved on and Stephie's mind again went blank.     Lieutenant Ackerman gave the order to form up. His voice sounded the same as it had before, but somehow everything struck Stephie as different. The sun was lower. It felt cooler, as though the seasons had turned. But it was more fundamental than that. Stephie felt as if she were moving through a world that had changed in some pervasive and indefinable way. The road. The beach. The sky. It was as if she had stepped out of reality and into some surreal alternate dimension. Or was it the other way around? Had she emerged from fantasy into stark reality?     When Stephie shouldered her heavy pack, ten thousand needles of pain shot down her spine and up her thighs. It was that pain that, on some visceral level, connected Stephie's present with her past. The dividing point between the two, however, seemed to remain fixed in time. There was the life she had lived before the first blood drenched her hands, and the existence into which she had descended that followed. She therefore clung tightly to the thread of her aching muscles, which were her only connection between the old world and the new.     On seeing Stephie stooped under the weight of her pack, John Burns offered softly, "I can help." Stephie shook her head no. Becky Marsh cleared her throat but was again ignored, so Becky sighed loudly and began to bitch. A second thread: something else that hadn't changed. "That fucking physical fitness test in boot camp!" Becky lamented for the thousandth time. Lieutenant Ackerman was walking down the line and talking quietly to each soldier. "They should've fucking told us what the test was for!" Becky had accidentally tested into infantry in a boot camp fitness test. Stephie, by contrast, had worked hard to get in. And now she was determined to carry her own weight.     Platoon Sergeant Kurth pulled Ackerman aside just before he got to Stephie. They were whispering, but Stephie overheard heard them. Nine dead, Kurth reported. Sixteen wounded, four bad. The news seemed to weigh heavily on Ackerman, who repeated the numbers over the radio to the company commander. It was a Chinese submarine raiding party, Ackerman reported. Heavily armed and with pouches nearly empty of demolition charges that had been placed somewhere inland. Four enemy killed in action. No survivors. He listened for a moment, then had to repeat the figures. "We took nine KIA and sixteen WIA! We have four confirmed enemy kills! Repeat! Four! " The CO asked something else. Ackerman's eyes rose to Stephie. "Negative," was his reply over the radio as he turned away from the young private.     The CO signed off, and Kurth and the radioman left Ackerman alone. The tall, skinny lieutenant just stood there. Staring at the road with a look that Stephie couldn't fathom. When he snapped to, he walked up to Stephie. "You okay, Roberts?" the platoon leader asked. She nodded, not trusting her voice. Four men , she kept thinking, wiped out half our platoon . "Ya know," Ackerman said in a low tone that drew her scrutiny, "one word and I could put you on one of those choppers."     "But ..." Stephie began, but faltered, momentarily confused. "I'm not Wounded, sir."     "That's not what I mean," he said quietly.     Stephie understood what he was saying and frowned. Her squadmates--who had all miraculously escaped injury--watched the encounter, Stephie saw, and waited for her reply.     Stephie shook her head, and Ackerman nodded. He moved on without comment, leaving in his wake only the stares of her comrades at Stephie. Some of them--like Becky--were incredulous.     But unlike Becky, Stephie had always demanded equal treatment. Or at least, she thought, treatment as equal as one could possibly expect to be accorded the daughter of the president of the United States of America. White House Oval Office September 14 // 2030 Local Time     President Bill Baker stood alone at the window waiting. Outside, thousands of noisy pro-nuclear demonstrators--many refugees from the Exclusion Zone, which they claimed Bill had abandoned--called upon him to launch an immediate nuclear strike against Chinese forces. But the forty-three-year-old Republican was convinced that a nuclear war would spell the end of the country with whose survival he'd been entrusted.     Bill's personal secretary appeared at the door. Behind her stood almost a dozen Secret Service agents, who eyed all with stares that betrayed deadly serious intent. "The National Security Council has convened in the Situation Room," she reported. "And Mrs. Roberts is being ushered in."     President Baker nodded and turned back to the protest. People chanted and waved placards with obscure references to the Old Testament. One placard read, "Not one Chinese boot on American soil!" Another sign cried, "Do your job! Save America! Drop the bomb!"     But Bill saw clearly what only a handful of people in Washington and Beijing understood: the laws of Armageddon. Despite all the advances in antimissile technology, one fact hadn't changed since the earliest days of the atomic arts. The outcome of a nuclear war between two nearly equal nuclear adversaries will ultimately result in the destruction of both warring states. In a nuclear war, America and China would strike each other with staggering and repeated blows. Instead of being vaporized all at once, the early Twenty-First-Century combatants would die over weeks and months of hell on earth. The strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction had been replaced by Protracted Perimeter Engagement. Blow by blow, nuclear-tipped missiles would erode each country's defenses from the coastline, to the highlands, to the heartland. When missiles penetrated the Great Plains states , Bill Baker was convinced, that would be the end .     "You've got to get Stephie out of the army!" came Rachel's anguished voice. Bill turned to see his personal secretary close the door behind his ex-wife: the mother of Stephie, his only child. "She's only eighteen, and she's going to die. Your daughter's going to die, Bill, at age eigh teen ! You're her father! It's time you started acting like one!"     Rachel's barb didn't sting Bill; it sickened him. How dare she? he thought--hating Rachel. "I can't exempt Stephie from service!" he explained, though he desperately wanted to do exactly that. " I'm the one who ordered women into combat! I can't exempt my own ...!"     "I bet you haven't even thought about the risk of Stephie getting captured!" Rachel accused.     Bill didn't tell her, but she was wrong. The Joint Chiefs had warned of the risk in what Bill felt at the time was unnecessarily graphic detail. The Chinese had a certain history, it seemed, of using and abusing prisoners to gain leverage. Bill grew ill every time his thoughts strayed near the subject.     "You're only worried about political damage!" she accused. "You're going to kill your only child to avoid a black eye in the opinion polls! For a poignant story in the history books! ` Daughter of president dies defending his country! ' Well that's not what those books are gonna say, Bill! Not if the Chinese are the ones who write them! You'll have the distinction of forever being known as the last president of the United States!"     She had struck a nerve, and an awful tingle washed over Bill. He felt a sudden panicked need to flee.     "Where is the 41st Infantry Division?" Rachel demanded through teeth clenched in anger. Bill said nothing. "Where is my daughter's unit ?" she built to a scream. The doors burst open. Secret Service agents appeared with guns drawn. Bill shook his head. They withdrew.     If I tell her, she would steamroll any junior army officer , Bill thought to torment himself. She would march right in and yank Stephie out of harm's way. God, how he wanted that to be the outcome. But with all the life drained from his voice Bill said, "It would be illegal for you to go see her." Rachel opened her mouth to shout, but Bill tried to reason. "We can't have parents dropping by units to visit! Plus, the location of military units is a secret , Rachel."     "You're murdering your own daughter , you bastard !" she shouted. "You know why she volunteered for the infantry, don't you? Because of those B-grade stinkers you made before you got into this politician schtick! I found a box of movie disks when we packed up her room. Bill Baker--Space Marine! Maybe instead of keeping you two apart I should've let her get to know what a shit you are! As it stands now, she thinks you're a fucking hero because of those god -awful movies you made! Just what have you ever done in real life that's truly heroic? Name one goddamn thing!" Bill headed past her for the door. "You pig! You won't even do this for your own child !" He stormed out of the Oval Office with Rachel shrieking, "Heartless coward !" at him from behind.     Bill fled through security checkpoints, with aides gathering in trail, waiting for their turn to be recognized. At one metal detector, Bill caught the eye of a burly, buzz-cut brute. The bull-necked man looked out of place in a suit. His appointments secretary ran through the changes necessitated by his five-minute confrontation with Rachel. "Who's that?" Bill asked. He nodded at the watchful man, whose crossed arms and oversized jacket concealed a large weapon underneath.     "He's Secret Service," his secretary replied.     "I don't want any new faces on my security detail," Baker ordered. "You tell the special agent in charge. Okay? Nobody that I don't recognize or personally approve." The elevator door opened as the secretary scribbled a note. Bill felt his heart race from the unpleasant rush of adrenaline. His panic attacks were growing worse, and more and more frequent. He turned away from the elevator and strode instead down the corridor. He wasn't yet ready to play the role of commander in chief. Mobile, Alabama September 14 // 2040 Local Time     Despite the hour, the night air was unpleasant. An afternoon thunderstorm had left behind sticky humidity. U.S. Army Special Forces Captain Jim Hart climbed up the ladder to the camouflaged metal deer blind. He held the rungs of the ladder with his left hand and his H&K machine pistol with his right. His combat boots' rubber soles made no sound. At the top, he scrutinized the darkness inside the small shelter. Rifles with long scopes leaned against the walls. Faint snoring fixed the two men's locations. They lay side by side and head to toe in two sleeping bags that were unzipped and flung back to catch the intermittent breeze on the sultry night.     Hart slung the H&K over his shoulder and soundlessly pulled his combat knife from its scabbard. The nine-inch blade was a dull black except along its cutting edges where the sharpened metal was silvery from honing with a stone stored on the scabbard.     Moving carefully, Hart climbed inside the tight enclosure between the two oblivious men. By their greasy, gray hair and the stubble on their double chins they looked to be in their late fifties or early sixties. The enclosed blind stank of their unwashed bodies. There was some uneaten bread and cheese on a small paper plate to go along with the six-pack of beer cans littering the forest floor fifteen feet below.     Hart held the knife's sharp edge to one man's unshaven neck.     The man's eyes opened wide. He looked up at Hart's grease-blackened face and opened his mouth. Hart pressed more firmly, and the words caught with a gurgle in his throat. Hart lessened the pressure of the blade, arched his eyebrows and nodded.     "B-B-Brad," the man whispered. "Brad!" he managed to squeak a little more loudly.     "Hm?" Brad asked from deep in his well of sleep. When he opened his eyes, he saw the muzzle of Hart's H&K.     "Top of the morning, Brad," Hart said.     Brad let out a sigh of relief on realizing that Hart was American.     Hart removed his knife from the man's throat and stabbed a piece of cheese with it. The taste of the morsel was sharpened by its warmth. With his mouth full, Hart said, "You guys out here doing some hunting?"     "Well, sorta," Brad replied. He turned to his friend. "You was s'posed to keep a lookout!"     "You two know," Hart interrupted as he tore the loaf of French bread into mouth-sized bites and proceeded to devour it, "it's illegal to be in the Exclusion Zone." They said nothing. "I could arrest you, but unfortunately," he said, holding his hands out as proof, "I don't have any facilities to take pris'ners." He shrugged and made a show of being trapped by the circumstances while he tore and chewed his way through the long loaf. "So I could either kill you, or let you go on the promise that you clear outa here before you get yourselves in a whole world of hurt."     "You ain't from 'round here, are ya?" Brad asked almost as if in challenge.     "No. I'm from Michigan. But you're lucky I'm not from Harbin or Shanghai. There are Chinese pathfinders and long-range recon patrols out here," Hart said, looking at the tall, gently swaying pines just outside. "And the Chinese don't like partisans. Don't like 'em at all. It offends their sensibilities or something. I guess if you're the Chinese, you believe in playing by the rules when you field an army of sixty million regulars. So they wouldn't exactly extend you guys good old Christian charity, if you know what I mean. As a matter of fact, they've adopted an old trick from the New World to discourage partisan activity. You two good ole boys ever heard of a `Venezuelan Necktie'?"     Both shook their heads.     Hart carved open a blade-width hole in a piece of the hard bread. "You cut into the neck, reach inside with your finger, and pull the tongue out through the hole." He ate the slice of bread in three bites. "Looks like a necktie. Get it?" He took a swig from his canteen. "It's, uhm, a slow way to go, shall we say."     Hart brushed his hands clean of the crumbs and grabbed a hunting rifle. He slid the bolt out, then did the same with the other three long guns.     "What're you doin'?" Brad asked.     Hart slipped the four bolts into his cargo pocket and climbed onto the ladder outside. "Saving your lives," he replied. "Now go home."     "This is our home," Brad said.     "Well, go take care of your families."     "Ain't got none," Brad replied. "My wife died near 'bout fourteen years ago. We didn't have no children. Willy here, well, his wife wised up and left him awhile back, and his only boy ... Well, he was in the Marines."     Willy's head hung. Hart looked back and forth between the two in increasing exasperation. "Look! If you guys wanta fight the fucking Chinese, at least join the militia."     "They won't have us," Willy answered. "Top age is sixty. We miss out by a coupla years."     Hart looked out at the surrounding terrain. They had a clear shot at Interstate 65 heading inland from the port of Mobile. It was, Hart knew from extensive prewar briefings, projected to be the main line of supply for the Chinese. At five hundred meters, it was within range of their hunting rifles.     The trees whose branches scraped on the metal siding of the blind with each gust might provide concealment from advance patrols, which probably wouldn't stray that far off the highway at first. Those same trees, however, would also provide concealment to Chinese troops who were maneuvering against the two old men. But the would-be snipers probably wouldn't last that long. A main tank gun on the road could fire a shell that would cover the distance in a fraction of a second.     "This is a bad idea, guys," Hart advised one last time. "You won't make it outa here."     "We know that," Brad replied. Willy nodded in confirmation. "We thought about strappin' bombs to ourselves like terrorists, but the first few we made just sorta burned real hot. Finally, we figured we'd just do what we knew we could. We're both damn good shots." Willy nodded.     Hart frowned, took one last look around, and dropped the four rifle bolts on the metal floor of the hunting blind with a clacking sound. The two men stared at them, then at Hart. "What I said before," Hart warned, "about being taken prisoner, I wasn't bullshitting you. Don't let yourselves get captured. You two understand? If they close on you, you've gotta do the job yourselves. You've gotta take your own lives--quickly--before they do it ... slowly. You two both understand that?"     Hart waited, and both men nodded again. Willy seemed to have trouble swallowing.     "We made our minds up," Brad said. "The two of us, we ain't never done nothin', you know, special. This'll be it, we figure. Even if nobody ever knows we done it, this'll be it."     Willy nodded.     The trees hissed as the breeze rose from the Gulf. A dull clanking sound again drew Brad and Willy's gaze to the deck of the blind. In the dim moonlight, their eyes took a moment to find the knobby, pineapple-shaped fragmentation grenade that Hart had dropped next to the rifle bolts. "Happy hunting," Hart said as he descended the ladder.     "Same to ya," came Brad's reply. Willy, Hart presumed, was nodding. White House Map Room September 14 // 2045 Local Time     Bill sought shelter from his emotional storm in the Map Room. For decades, it had been used for informal meetings--coffees, teas, receptions, televised chats--but Bill had ordered the room returned to its original use. As a consequence, Secret Service agents stood guard by the door. The tabletop electronic maps contained highly classified military information.     Bill stood at a flat-screen, high-definition display of the South, searching for Stephie's unit. He found the glowing blue unit marker on a map of northern Alabama. The 41st Infantry Division lay directly in harm's way, and for that he was responsible. He had put Stephie there when he had ordered all women drafted and put through batteries of tests. They were young, healthy, bright, and patriotic: the products of affluence, good nutrition, and athletic suburban lifestyles. Twenty percent would test into the infantry. After their country had afforded the young women every conceivable advantage and privilege--after it had cultivated and cherished its daughters--now it needed their lives in return.     Bill jammed his eyes shut at the horrible truth. It was a tragedy on an unimaginable scale. Yet that scale had a more measurable personal dimension.     Months earlier General Adam Cotler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had met with Bill behind closed doors in the Oval Office. He was the senior general in the army, and he had delivered the army's official report. "Your daughter, sir, is five-foot seven and weighs one twenty-eight. Her health is excellent. She begins eight weeks of basic training tomorrow."     Eight weeks later, Cotler had squeezed in a moment during Baker's last trip to the Hawaiian Islands. The president had just given a rousing speech to the 3rd Marine Division, which was dug into the sand and volcanic ash. "She has completed the first half--basic infantry training," Cotler had reported. "She was in the 82nd percentile overall." Bill had nodded and stifled a smile. As Stephie was entering womanhood, the world was only now finding out what Bill already knew: Stephanie Roberts was an exceptional girl. "That's the 82nd percentile , Mr. President," Cotler had explained, "of all recruits: women and men."     Cotler's report had continued. Bill couldn't stop it. "She's lost seven pounds in the Georgia summer heat and is down to one twenty-one. But that's a strong one twenty-one." The words had been spoken as softly as Cotler could manage. "She can carry a full load: rifle, ammo, pack, extra machine gun belts, grenades, all-threat missiles, and cluster mortars."     " Wait! " Bill had interrupted. "Are you ... you're not saying , General, that ... that Stephie is going to be in the infantry ?"     Cotler had nodded with sincere compassion. "The young women these days, sir, they're very athletic. You get an average eighteen-year-old soccer player, like your daughter, and put her up against a male Internet junkie, and you'd be amazed how favorably she compares." He had looked at Baker. "Fair tests sometimes give you the wrong answer, sir. The top twenty percent, Mr. President, of the most mentally and physically tough women go infantry. Your daughter , sir, is in the ninety- eighth percentile of female recruits. She lost two points on upper-body strength. But on mental toughness and leadership--which comes from evaluations by DIs after sixteen weeks of watching her--she totally maxed the test. Number one in her basic training battalion of three hundred men and three hundred women."     Bill had been helpless to avoid the slow-motion car wreck. Cotler had said in a low, guilty-sounding voice that they had offered Stephie her choice of assignments: communications, intelligence, military government, public affairs. She had requested--demanded, in fact--the infantry. Bill jammed his eyes shut again and rubbed his face.     "Do what you can," Bill had said, and in a subsequent briefing Cotler had reported that he'd put a good man in charge of Stephie's unit. "Secret Service?" Bill had asked. Cotler had shaken his head no. "His name is Ackerman. Formerly Major Ackerman, an instructor at Advanced Infantry School, now Lieutenant Ackerman, your daughter's new platoon leader. With all due respect, sir, he can do more to keep your daughter safe in combat than any Secret Service bodyguard."     Bill had suggested that the man must be pissed at being busted from major to lieutenant. Coffer had replied that, "He's just a lieutenant in the official records. He's a major for all other purposes. And, sir, he volunteered for the job." Bill arched his eyes in surprise. "It was his only way out of the training school," Cotler explained, "and into a combat unit. At least, it was the only way we offered him the transfer."     There was a knock on the door. Bill straightened his back and composed himself just as Admiral Thornton, Baker's new Chief of Naval Operations, stepped inside. The ranking naval officer reported in a deep, funereal tone that Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was finally falling. Bill felt drained. "How many of our people are still combat effective?" he asked.     After hesitating, the CNO replied, "Fifteen thousand sailors and about eight thousand Marines."     They're still useful , Bill thought as he took a deep breath and issued an order whose wording he had memorized from past use. It was phrased, he knew, in terms that would not need to be explained to the military. "They are to keep fighting, Admiral, so long as they have any reasonable means to resist."     There , he thought. It's done. The order has been given.     Thornton hesitated for a moment, clearly reluctant to relay the command. He stared fixedly at Bill. It took all of the willpower that Bill could muster not to look away in guilt. But it was the admiral who finally averted his gaze. He mumbled, "Yes, sir," and quietly exited the room.     The door's latch clicked shut, and Bill collapsed into a chair. He held his face in both hands and moaned, "Oh, God!" He shut his eyes and allowed his mind to go blank.     Bill was the commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States of America. The National Security Council was waiting for him to give the final orders for the defense of America against invasion by massed armies from China. He needed time to brace himself for the duties required of him. Time to torment himself with the most popular question of the day in America and the rest of the Free World: How the hell did it ever come to this? Almost two years earlier, Bill Baker had been elected president for this very moment. As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he had been Cassandra to' the American Troy--warning over and over of the growing Chinese threat to absolutely no avail. Early retiring baby boomers had bailed out Social Security at the expense of national defense. They hadn't been about to send their college-bound kids off to oppose Chinese territorial aggression in Asia! And no one wanted to risk nuclear war, for God's sake. Not even the Indians, who had used hand grenades to destroy their own missiles while still in their silos to keep the Chinese from seizing them intact.     But long before that came the first milestone along the road to invasion of North America: the brief but bizarre Satellite Crisis ten years earlier. It had been hailed as the first of a new type of bloodless war, but in all probability it had been the world's last bloodless war as well. Beijing had always claimed that spy satellite overflights violated its territorial sovereignty, but no one had paid that claim much attention. Until, that is, in a demonstration of its new antimissile system, China had shot down all of the West's military satellites. The U.S. and Europe had retaliated in kind until their telecommunications lobbies--which had hundreds of billions in orbiting capital at risk--had pressed for a treaty demilitarizing space.     Military reconnaissance had been set back forty years, which constituted a huge gain to technology-poor China. Instead of receiving real-time satellite imagery, Western commanders had returned to the fog of war as seen through periscopes and on radar screens. Western intelligence agencies had been reduced to reliance upon spies who, as it turned out, had most often been Chinese double agents. Under the shroud of total secrecy that descended over conquered Korea, China had converted keels meant for supertankers into 300-plane supercarriers. Rumors of China's secret shipbuilding program had been secondary to world outrage over their land war, which had simultaneously raged across South Asia. Even after the ships began to put to sea in numbers, their significance was masked by the drama of China's push on the ground ever closer to the Middle East. Inexorably the balance of naval power had shifted, just as the era of strategic surprise had returned. The significance of both changes was dramatically proven in China's victory over the combined fleets of Western Europe's navies.     China had run headlong into the European Union at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. It had been the first major test of Europe's long-sought military self-sufficiency. Two fleets--European and Chinese--had gone toe to toe in the Indian Ocean until a previously unknown third fleet had arrived from China. The only warnings European commanders had of the impending naval debacle had been radar screens filled with three thousand Chinese aircraft. The Battle of Diego Garcia had been a replay of the Battle of Midway, only this time victory had gone to the ascendent Asiatic naval power.     America's incumbent Democratic administration--Baker's predecessor--had been torn between building more aircraft carriers or potentially revolutionary but longer-lead-time arsenal ships. While the former could hold their own against three or four Chinese supercarriers, the latter were totally untested weapons platforms. Some experts argued that relying upon the new arsenal ships was far too dangerous at such a perilous time. Better to go with the tried and true aircraft carriers, whose basic designs dated back fifty years. But others argued that massive arsenal ships--whose thousands of missiles ready for instant launch gave them ten times the punch of a carrier--would ensure America's mastery of the seas for generations. Studies were ordered and commissions organized to ensure the correct decision was made, given that decision's monumental cost and importance and the possibility that politics--which powerful congressman's district would build what vessels--might play a role. Valuable time was lost.     Meanwhile, Iran, Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan had all fallen--half through Chinese coercion, half by direct invasion. When China had at last occupied Syria and Lebanon, Israel had found itself surrounded. The Israeli David and the Chinese Goliath had each issued warnings, which tragically neither had heeded. Israeli tactical nukes had fallen on Chinese forces massing to the north in the Golan Heights, but the strikes had brought only temporary respite. Israel had been conquered by an attack-in-the-main from the south. The world had then watched live as troops cordoned off Tel Aviv. The population had not been allowed to leave the city as the Chinese staged a show of collective punishment. Chinese generals had condemned nuclear war on worldwide television while an on-screen clock counted down. At zero, engineers had detonated a half dozen nuclear "special demolition munitions" in and around the captive capital, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands. The demonstration had been a total success. No one thereafter would doubt China's will to retaliate in kind. It was "an eye for an eye" in the nuclear age.     Pro-defense Senator Baker had launched his bid for the presidency just as national defense had become America's sole political issue. By the end of the week before China seized Cape Verde and the Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa--the second milestone along their road to America--Bill's campaign had raised seventeen million dollars mainly from conservative political action committees and large defense contractors. By the end of the week that followed, his total campaign contributions had doubled, with the average size of the donations made that last week being $34.50. With Chinese bases in the Eastern Atlantic, Bill's political bandwagon had quickly filled.     Bill's mentor had, unusually, come from the other side of Capitol Hill. The venerable Tom Leffler, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives from Georgia, had years before taken a liking to the freshman senator from California. Perhaps it was because Bill, a polished former Hollywood actor, was so unlike Tom, a crusty, old-style, joke-telling, rib-eating Southern politician. Perhaps it was because Tom's wife, Beth Leffler--who, Bill thought privately, was the key to Tom's success--had taken the measure of Bill early on and seen the same potential in him that she had seen in Tom forty years earlier. Regardless of the reason, Tom and Beth Leffler had taken social charge of the divorced Bill, frequently escorting him to the right lunches, dinner parties, golf outings, and party retreats and caucuses. With their nurturing, Bill's career had flourished. And in the fateful year of Bill's attempted leap from junior senator to the nation's highest office, events had broken just right for Bill, but just wrong for the beleaguered West.     All in Europe had watched the prodigious Chinese sealift surpass previous herculean American logistical records. Half-million-ton transports had deposited three million men on the islands that constituted China's strategically important Atlantic foothold. All awaited the seemingly inevitable Chinese invasion of Europe with equal measures of incredulity and dread.     By the time of the Iowa caucuses, Congress had sought political cover behind massive defense appropriations. The studies of the blue ribbon panels had all come in, and the largest single line item in the history of the budget had been one hundred billion dollars for construction of three awesome new arsenal ships. The flat-decked, 500,000--ton behemoths wouldn't cruelly hurl manned aircraft into the teeth of enemy air defenses. Instead, each arsenal ship could launch huge, long-range guided missiles at the rate of eight thousand every six minutes. Armored, flush-mounted vertical launch boxes would cover nearly every square meter of her decks. Auto-reloaders and robotic maintenance reduced the crew of the ship to only one hundred men and women--mostly officers. The commander would watch the battle from cameras mounted in the nose cones of missiles inbound for their targets in the air, on land, and on and below the surface of the sea. As a candidate, Bill had watched the impressive computer depictions of the attack from the full-size simulator used to train the captain and crew of a ship whose keel had just been laid. It would be an overwhelming barrage of ever-homing images. Even though, as a pro-defense senator, Baker had loudly championed the ships, his refrain in the debates had been, "Too little, too late!" A frightened electorate had turned out to vote in droves, and Bill had won primary after primary through the spring.     The EU had dispatched a million-man expeditionary army to their southern flank and shored up the wavering Turks. Without firing a shot on the ground, a united Europe had stopped war before it reached the Bosporus. That decisive and swift deployment had infused the continent with self-destructive pride. Their hubris had ultimately been their undoing. When three Chinese supercarriers had sailed north toward the Rock of Gibraltar, Europe's emboldened navies had sailed south and deployed into the western Mediterranean. They had denied China passage and immediately celebrated victory ... until the arrival of another ten Chinese supercarriers.     In perhaps the greatest strategic blunder in modern military history, the surviving remnants of Europe's navies had been bottled up inside the Mediterranean. It was China's third milestone on their decade-long route to America, although no one saw it that way at the time. Analysts hadn't even known the names of the Chinese warships that had appeared on the horizon without any warning. Western "human intelligence" on the closed Korean peninsula had been reporting materials shortages and labor unrest, but it had been classic Chinese disinformation. The fanfare from Beijing upon commissioning of each new warship had masked the three ships built in between.     Europe had promptly launched spy satellites in violation of the international ban. All had been downed by Chinese missiles, but not before they had returned crisp photos of Korea's bustling slave-labor shipyards. In real time, governments in Berlin, Paris, and London had gotten their first glimpse of another twenty supercarriers that were in various states of construction. The Sturm und Drang that ensued had left Europe in complete disarray. China had downed Europe's civilian satellites in retaliation for their violation of the treaty demilitarizing space. The resulting fragmentation of Europe's telecommunications system had been an omen of the disunity to follow.     The furious Britain--cut off from her fleet--had withdrawn from the EU. Their army trains had been jeered all the way from Turkey to the English Channel, but they had been cheered at the cliffs of Dover. The remaining European expeditionary force had been forced to withdraw behind the Bosporus, and Turkey had fallen south of Istanbul. The Germans had thought that the Chinese would now attack overland from Turkey or the Caucasus. But the French had been certain they would come from the sea into Iberia or directly into France. So Paris had recalled its troops to build a Western Wall along the Atlantic. The German army--left alone--had dug in deep and held its bloody Balkan ground, hemorrhaging daily in proxy wars with various Chinese-backed guerillas. In the month before Baker's Republican presidential nomination, the EU had acrimoniously dissolved.     For Baker, the general election had been a single-issue race against a man whose Achilles' heel was that issue. The Democratic nominee--Phillip Peller--had been vice president in the previous administration, which for eight years had chosen isolationism over containment. With withering overseas defense commitments, America's need for weapons and troops had waned. Naval construction had slowed to a crawl. The fleet had shrunk from eleven to only seven aging aircraft carriers. While each was still a match for two or three Chinese supercarriers, on Election Day they were outnumbered four to one.     Baker and Elizabeth Sobo, his vice presidential running mate, had won the general election in a record landslide. A special air of excitement had surrounded the inauguration at which Baker had given a Reaganesque morning-in-America speech. Washington once again led an embattled Free World. The Dow--which had crashed with the collapse of international trade--had rocketed skyward as capital fled Europe for bastion America. The gush of spending in Baker's doubled defense budget and the draft of the young had left Americans fully employed. Keels had hurriedly been laid for the three Reagan-class arsenal ships, and Atlantic blockade running was the talk of the day. Baker's first order as commander in chief had been to prepare to send three carriers escorting a military supply convoy on a daring voyage to Great Britain.     But in the middle of the night one month into Bill's presidency, he had been awakened to stunning news. China had attacked not north into Europe, but west into the Carribean. Chinese naval infantry had seized Barbados, Grenada, and St. Lucia. Bold plans for a rescue of Europe had given way to the grim task of defending America. An angry Congress had gutted the stunned CIA and vested intelligence-gathering in the FBI. After all , they had reasoned sarcastically, military intelligence would soon no longer be foreign !     The landings were just an audacious ploy to divert aid, some experts had argued, from the real target: Western Europe. But to Baker the landings were the final milestone for which he had long been waiting. The Chinese had finally arrived, and he had asked Congress for a declaration of war. For three days they had debated contentiously on worldwide television. Surely we weren't wed to this Monroe Doctrine thing! And the casualties ... many had whispered. But a majority had voted with Speaker of the House Tom Leffler on whom Bill had relied to get America's formal, official commitment. With that vote--95 to 5 in the Senate, and 421 to 6 in Leffler's tightly run House--America had drawn the line in the Carribean, and not in the Gulf of Mexico.     Though the ink on the declaration of war was not yet dry--literally within minutes of the vote--Baker had sent two thousand warplanes into combat. A quarter had been lost but not before they had sunk four of eight Chinese supercarriers. The Battle of the Windward Islands had been proclaimed a victory, but China had retained its Carribean toehold, and in the spring it had begun an island-hopping campaign that inched ever northward. Martinique, Dominica, and Guadeloupe all had fallen. Baker had finally run out of pilots, and one new Chinese supercarrier had continued to arrive every two weeks.     With each landing, Beijing's peace terms had grown more and more onerous. Trade concessions had begun to resemble tribute. Arms reduction proposals had become demands that America disarm. Baker's final attempt to negotiate had been met by a proposal from China for the long-term lease of the Hawaiian Islands. When Baker had rejected the insult, China had attempted to blockade America's fiftieth state. That had siphoned off scarce American naval resources, the 3rd Marine Division and 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and the entire U.S. Army IX Corps. Convoys had deposited troops and evacuated civilians until Hawaii had become an armed camp awaiting the inevitable invasion.     A combination of thinly veiled public hectoring by his old Tom Leffler and explicit private urging by air force General Latham had forced Baker to contemplate nuclear war. During one long weekend at Camp David, he had met a procession of apocalyptic military wizards interspersed with economists, historians, and religious leaders. On Monday Baker had gone on national television and announced his first major decision of the war. He had ordered total mobilization. He would fight a conventional World War III. A reluctant Tom Leffler had gotten Baker's conscription bill passed drafting all able-bodied Americans--male and female--age eighteen through twenty-four. But military pundits had pointed out the parallels between Baker's defensive strategy and that previously employed by Japan. Tokyo had mobilized during two years of blockade, but then had fallen island by island to the Chinese. In reality, Bill pinned his hopes not on the young troops, but instead on three arsenal ships whose frames rose from keels like bare ribs in shipyards on the east and west coasts. And in so doing he had let the opportunity for a nuclear strike on the Chinese while still in the Carribean slowly pass. Many now viewed that to be a monumental mistake for which America would pay in territory and in the precious blood of its young.     The first year of Baker's presidency had been a blur. If he had been asked, as was the rage, "Where were you when ...?", he could have replied, with confidence, "In a briefing." As dogfights had raged in sunny Caribbean skies above abandoned luxury resorts, Baker had dwelled in deep bunkers watching wobbly pictures on high-definition TV.     Marines had made the first ground contact of the war. The 4th and 6th Expeditionary Brigades had dug deep into Antigua and St. Croix. But within hours of the Chinese landings, each of the brigades of 16,000 sailors and marines had been outnumbered four to one. Within days, they were outnumbered one hundred to one. After a week of fighting, the world had been treated to pictures of hollow-eyed Marines being marched off to prison camps. Their humiliation had galvanized the United States and extinguished incipient domestic peace movements, but Latin America had gravitated inexorably into the orbit of the world's new superpower. Panama had granted China unrestricted passage through the Canal until it had been destroyed by U.S. Army Special Forces personnel. The American attack had outraged South Americans and further driven their nations into the Chinese fold. The authorities in half a dozen capitals, anxious to please visiting delegations of Chinese, had made a show of cutting off the utilities and supplies of America's embassies, and had been cheered by throngs on the streets outside. Chinese diplomats had won great swaths of territory in the Americas as their military fought for yards of blood-soaked sand.     Finally, in the fall of Baker's first year in office, Chinese troop transports had been invited into Havana. Each transport had landed an entire army division with a full month of combat supplies. The buildup had quickly outflanked Puerto Rico. Most of the Puerto Rican population had been evacuated to Florida, leaving only the 10,000-man 92nd Infantry Brigade behind. The 6000 men and women who had survived three weeks of combat after the Chinese invaded now joined the swelling ranks of POWs.     It was then that Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had begun repulsing round-the-clock attacks. The American base continued to support operations in the Caribbean until besieged by land, air, and sea. The 1st Marine Division and 25,000 sailors turned riflemen had then made one of the greatest defensive stands in history. But Chinese transports had continued landing in Cuba, and Baker had gotten a troop count every Friday morning. By Christmas they had numbered one million men. By the end of winter, they had doubled to two million. During the spring, three million Chinese soldiers had stood ready for orders. By summer, four million men were encamped on Cuba's northern beaches. The latest count Baker had received was up to five million troops with more arriving every day. They now completely dominated America's exposed southern flank.     Baker had developed an ulcer, and doctors had cautioned him about excessive levels of stress. What a small price to pay was Baker's only thought about the ailment, which nightly robbed him of hours of sleep.     The increasingly desperate plight of the Guantanamo Bay defenders had forced Baker into his second major strategic decision. He couldn't abandon the embattled patriots, who for his countrymen had become synonymous with the word resolve . So in the first heat of summer he had sent three carriers through the Straits of Havana escorting the entire 2nd Marine Division. It had been planned to be an unstoppable forced entry and evacuation, but it had turned into an unparalleled human disaster. For lying in wait on the sandy bottom of the shallow Gulf waters had been a hundred-boat Chinese submarine wolfpack. The primitive but silent diesel-electric vessels had sunk all three carriers and a dozen assault ships, and wave after wave of Chinese surface ships and aircraft had finished off the rest of the task force.     Proof of America's stunning defeat had for weeks washed ashore up and down Gulf Coast beaches. Many of the 30,000 dead sailors and Marines had been found by their comrades' parents, who combed the shore for the bodies of their sons and daughters. Every night, America's living rooms had been filled with heartrending scenes of intense grief, and it had triggered the panicked flight of forty million people from the South. Order had been lost completely from Fort Lauderdale to the Rio Grande, and advisers had beseeched the president to restore calm. But Baker had done nothing to reassure the frightened refugees or to stem the human tide. They were right to be panicked, he realized but never said. The reason for their fear had been real and not imagined. The defeat in the Straits of Havana had laid bare to Chinese invasion the soft underbelly of the United States of America.     Admiral Thornton--the new CNO--had appeared visibly shaken when he'd given Baker the navy's dismal news. America had been left with only four carriers split between the East and West Coasts. The Chinese had sixteen supercarriers in the Gulf. They could land anywhere along America's Third Coast that they wanted. Baker had turned to the chief of staff of the air force, but General Latham had, informed him that China deployed 4800 carrier-based aircraft in the Gulf and another 4000 on runways in Cuba. Latham couldn't send his few thousand remaining combat pilots on suicidal attacks against the Chinese without robbing America's own air defenses of an integral and critical component. For while high-altitude Chinese missiles and aircraft were downed by ground-based American SAMs, most stealthy, low-and-slow, air-breathing cruise missiles were intercepted by pilots firing guns.     Baker hadn't bothered asking the marine commandant for help. The Corps had lost the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions, and the 3rd was stranded in Hawaii. The 4th--a reserve unit--anchored fixed defenses around New Orleans. After the losses in the Carribean, all the marines had left were three 10,000-man Marine Expeditionary Brigades. Replacement 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions, plus the new marine divisions numbered 5th and 6th, had not yet been raised at Camps Pendleton and Lejeune. They would be ready to go to sea behind the firepower of the arsenal ships ... if only America could hold on long enough to launch them.     Baker had turned then to the defender of last resort: the United States Army. It is possible, General Cotler had advised, that we could stop the Chinese on the beach. But repulsing their first attack won't stop their second, third, or fourth, and committing our reserves to do that may be exactly what they want. "It could shorten the war, Mr. President," Cotler had said, chilling Bill to the bone.     Baker had thus been forced into his third major decision. "I want decisive engagement," he had told the Joint Chiefs. "Since America can't take the war to the Chinese, the Chinese will have to come to us." Baker had known that the uniformed doubters who stared back at him had never once in their careers contemplated the loss of territory to invasion, and they promptly opened fire on Baker's plan. What if the Chinese land ten million troops? "Then we'll draft mothers of young children and old men," Bill had replied. What if the Cuban buildup is a strategic deception and they come ashore in New Jersey or California? "Then we'll fight in the Sierra Nevadas and Appalachians," Baker had answered, "and I want a contingency plan to do just that."     That night, after silencing the dissent in his NSC, Baker had lain awake half the night thinking, What the hell do I know? He had been a bit actor in male adventure movies whose name and face had won him a vacant senate seat. His political career had remained undistinguished until the China thing had caught fire. His marriage to Rachel Roberts, a star-struck co-ed nee Rachel Bachman, had been a total disaster. Because a second divorce would have made Bill virtually unelectable, he had shied away from any romantic entanglements since.     The result: Bill Baker now lived in his own private hell--alone under the crashing weight of the office. Just the night before, he had lain awake again till the early hours of the next day, wondering when the unthinkable had become the inevitable? Was it last spring when he had toured the South inspecting antimissile silos and heard the near constant thunder of sonic booms from Gulf-bound interceptors? Or was it on that clear, early summer night on the deserted beach in southern Florida watching the final sea battles from the Straits of Havana flash like lightning over the horizon? Or when announcing to the people at the port of Charleston that the navy would one day return, then later that night viewing the body of the first confirmed Chinese soldier in America--a commando who had been killed in a shoot-out with local police? No, he had decided as the dawn shown around thick curtains, he had long feared the vague menace of the Chinese resurgence. For the nation that Baker led was bounded by three thousand miles of undefended coastline. When America had lost control of the sea, the oceans surrounding her had gone from being her greatest asset to being her possibly fatal liability. Copyright (c) 2000 Eric L. Harry. All rights reserved.