Authors: Stephen Coonts
Towering along the western shore of the lake was a range of high mountains, still snowcapped from the previous winter. More rugged, craggy blue mountains lay to the south and east.
Since arriving in Irkutsk, Yan Chernov had not taken the time to admire the view. He spent every minute in meetings with generals and colonels who had flown in from Moscow.
“You will escort a strike on Tokyo,” he was told. Amid the trans
ports with Aeroflot markings at the base sat a half-dozen MiG-25s, elderly Mach-3 single-seat interceptors. These planes, Chernov was told, would actually carry the bombs. Of all the planes the Soviets had built through the years, which the Russians had inherited, only MiG-25s had a chance against Zeros. MiG-25s could use their blazing speed to outrun the Japanese interceptorsâdash in, drop their weapons, and dash away before the Zeros could shoot them all down.
A Moscow general with an amazing display of chest cabbage held up one finger. “Only one,” he said. “Only one has to get through.”
Another strike launched at the same time would target the Japanese missile-launch facilities on the Tateyama Peninsula. Chernov knew the colonel leading that strike, although not well.
The problem with the MiG-25s, which was the reason for these meetings and conferences, was their limited range. The bombers would have to be fueled from airborne tankers several times to make this flight, one far longer that anything the Mikoyan designers had ever in their wildest fantasies envisioned for their superfast fighter. Like all Soviet fighters, the MiG-25 had been designed to defend the homeland.
Getting the tankers into position to refuel the MiGs prior to and after their dash was Chernov's job. He was to escort them and defend them from Zeros.
Just listening to the Moscow generals and their staffs explain the mission, annotate charts, assign frequencies and call signs, and talk about the whole thing as if it were possibleâindeed, as if it were a routine military operationâChernov didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The whole thing was ludicrous. At the very start of this exercise in military stupidity, Chernov tried to explain to the staff weenies that the Sukhois didn't have much of a chance against semi-stealthy Zeros: “Zeros are a technological generation beyond our plane. Two generations ahead of the MiG-25,” he said.
None of the brass was interested. He would do as he was toldâit had all been decided in Moscow.
Now Chernov sat and listened and made notes. He looked out the window and watched the second hand of the clock on the wall sweep around and around, counting off the minutes. Dawn was still several hours away.
An hour before man-up time, the briefers were finished. The pilots were told to relax, make a head stop.
Chernov wandered over toward the barracks and found an empty bunk.
Stretched out, trying to relax, trying to put it all in perspective, he felt the insanity sweep over him. He felt as if he were drowning. Nuclear weapons. Nuke Tokyo. Mushroom clouds. Millions dead.
If any of the MiGs got through, that is.
And afterward, meeting the tankers, trying to get enough fuel to make it back to a Russian-occupied baseâ¦
“What if the Japanese retaliate?” someone had asked the Moscow brass, only to be told, “The Japanese don't have nuclear weapons.”
“We hope,” Yan Chernov said loudly.
“President Kalugin is absolutely certain.”
“Bet he said that in a telephone call from his dacha on the Black Sea,” one of the junior pilots said, and his comrades laughed. The Moscow brass frowned, then pretended that they had heard nothing.
The men weren't happy, but they had never heard anyone in uniform suggest Japan might be a nuclear power, so the possibility of thermonuclear retaliation seemed remote. Getting to Japan was the worrisome part.
Well, if the Zeros didn't get them, the usual Russian leadership and efficiency problems would ensure this complex plan ground to a halt well before the planes landed safely back at Irkutsk.
Chernov lay in the darkness, trying to relax. Sleep was impossible. Man-up time in less than an hour.
His thoughts began to drift. Scenes from his youth growing up on a collective farm flashed through his mind. He had wanted something more, and so had applied himself faithfully and diligently to gain top honors in school. The work paid off. He had been noticed.
So what had he gained?
His life had been a great adventure. Truly. The flying, the new and different places, the exhilaration of combat, the thrill of victoryâa man would never have gotten any of that back on the collective farm, with that eternal wind always blowing, howling across the plain, scouring away seed, soil, hopes, dreams, everything.
If his father and mother could only see how far he had traveled along this road.
He was seized with the most powerful longing. Oh, if only he could spend another day with his parents, sitting in their tiny cottage, looking out the door at the plowed fields as his father talked about the earth.
All that was over. Gone.
In a few hours, he would be dead and none of it would matter.
The submarine bumped once, scraped along the seafloor for a few feet, then settled into the muddy bottom of Sagami Bay and began tilting ever so slowly to port.
“Captain,” Esenin said sharply as the list passed five degrees. Even he was holding on.
“At twelve degrees, we lift her and try another spot.”
“We are so close,” Esenin muttered.
Ten degreesâ¦barely movingâ¦Then all movement stopped.
A sigh of relief swept the control room.
“Fifty-two meters,” someone said, reading the depth gauge.
Suddenly Saratov realized how tired he was. He had to hang on to the chart table to remain erect.
“Here we are, General. Wounded, running out of air, with exhausted batteries, and the entire Japanese navy searching for us. I don't know how much time we have.”
The tense hours had taken their toll on Esenin. He had to summon the energy to speak. “You have gotten us here, Saratov. That is the critical factor. At this place, we can save Russia.”
“Right.” The sourness in Saratov's tone narrowed Esenin's eyes.
“We leave this spot when and only when I say.” Esenin looked into every man's face. “I am taking two divers with me. We will exit through the air lock. We will open a container and put one of the weapons onto the sea floor. Then we will come back inside and you will move the boat one mile west along the fault, where we will do it again. When the last weapon is on the bottom, you will take us out of here.”
Esenin glanced at his watch.
“When will the weapons detonate?” Saratov asked.
“In twelve hours. Planting each weapon will take an hour, plus an hour to move the boatâseven hours total. That will give us five hours to exit the area.”
“We don't have seven hours,” Saratov told him. “You might have one or two. Three at most.”
“You think they'll be on us by then?”
“I guarantee it.”
Esenin's lips compressed into a thin line.
“The warheads are armed now, aren't they?” Pavel Saratov asked.
“Do you know that, or are you guessing?”
“The box.” He nodded at the box on Esenin's chest. “It could only be a trigger.”
“We decided that detonation of the weapons at sea would be preferable to letting them fall into enemy hands. Fortunately for us, that necessity did not arise. Still, it might. If it does, I have faith that Major Polyakov will do what has to be done. He will have custody of the box while I am outside the boat.”
Esenin took off the box and placed it on the chart table. He opened it.
“As you can see, there is a keyboard for typing in a code.” He punched in a four-digit number with a forefinger. “There,” he said. “The code is entered. Now the circuitry is armed.”
Saratov stepped forward for a look. “You armed that goddamned thing?”
“It was too dangerous to sail around with the bombs armed. They are armed now.”
Esenin's hand came up. He had a pistol in it. He jabbed the barrel against Saratov's chest. “No closer, Captain. You have had your fun at my expense. From here on, this is my show.”
Polyakov and the naval infantry
also had their pistols out and pointing.
The major grinned at Saratov. “I will guard the box, Captain.”
“You have brought us far, Pavel Saratov,” Esenin said, flashing his Trojan Island grin, “yet we still have far to go. You will let us down if you let anything happen to you.”
“You don't really give a damn if you live or die, do you, Esenin?”
“Sometimes it is easier that way.”
Saratov got back onto the stool where he had spent the last twelve hours. “You people better get at it. It is just a matter of time before the Japs arrive.”
The dinner hour had passed when Janos Ilin made an evening call on Marshal Stolypin at military headquarters in Moscow. He found the old man in a sour mood. When the door closed and they were alone, the soldier said, “Fool! Incompetent! Bungler!”
“What can I say?”
“This morning he gave the order to launch nuclear strikes against Japan. He sent three planes to bomb Tokyo and three to bomb the Japanese missile facility at Tateyama. And, of course, there is the submarine with four weapons aboard trying to put bombs on the ocean floor outside Tokyo Bay. I argued against it, told him no, no, a thousand times no, and he almost sacked me. Ran me out.”
“Oh, too bad.
Have we heard anything from
“Not a word. From all the intercepts of Japanese traffic, it appears Captain Saratov has gotten into Sagami Bay. Against all odds. It's an amazing feat.”
“What does Kalugin say?”
“He doesn't believe the Japanese have warheads on missiles that they can use as ICBMs. Refuses to admit the possibility.”
“I was hoping you had an appointment with him in the near future.”
The old man sat looking out the window. He looked ten years older than he had a month ago.
“You have done what you could, Marshal.”
“I should be home in my garden.” Stolypin sighed. “My legacy to RussiaâI argued futilely against a suicidal course already decided upon by a dictator. Fifty years of soldiering I did, and he wouldn't listen.”
time for the garden.”
“I just sent an aide over with a letter of resignation effective at midnight tonight. I should go home now and be done with all of this.” Stolypin looked at his watch. “I have my last staff meeting in a few minutes. Perhaps I should sit in on it, say farewell.”
“How goes it? Truly.”
“The situation is not as bleak as Kalugin believes. We are building an army; we are equipping it, finding food and fuel and transportationâ¦. We could whip the Japanese this winter. We will have half a million men to put against them. With air superiority, we will crush them.”
“Kalugin refuses to wait?”
“He says the UN will give the oil fields away before spring. Maybe he is right. The world has changed so.”
“I must see Kalugin tonight.”
“I tried to explainâ¦. Time is on our side. Every day that passes, we get stronger. Six months from now, they will be losing troops wholesale; we'll be bleeding them mercilessly; the Diet will be arguing about how much money the army costsâ¦.
Then we could have them!
The telephone rang. Stolypin sat looking at it, listening to the rings, before he finally extended a hand and picked up the instrument. “Yes.”
He listened a bit, then said, “Janos Ilin of the FIS is also here. He would like an audience, too. May I bring him along?”
He listened a bit more, grunted, then hung up.
“One of Kalugin's flunkies. The president wants to see me about the letter.”
“Yes.” Stolypin ran his fingers over the desk, put the telephone exactly where it was supposed to be, and flipped off an invisible mote of dust.
“They said you could come, if you wished.”
“Don't thank me. He'll probably have me shot for treason and you for being in the same room.”
As they walked into the courtyard, Ilin put a hand lightly on the marshal's arm and brought him to a stop. “Have you any indication that Kalugin suspects you or me of trying to kill him?”
“None. So far.”
“Kalugin will purge the bureaucracy, the military, and the Chamber of Deputies as soon as the military situation is looking up.”
“I am an old man. I am resigned to my fate. Rest assured, I will say nothing.”
“I wasn't thinking of you or me. I was thinking of one hundred and fifty million Russians who deserve better than Aleksandr Kalugin.”
With that, Ilin walked on toward the car.