Authors: Ted Bell
South China Sea
Midnight. No moon, no stars, the sea a flat black void a few feet beneath his wingtips. For a man streaking through the night over hostile foreign waters at nearly the speed of sound, at an altitude no sane man would dare consider, Alex Hawke was remarkably comfortable. He was piloting an F-16 Viper. The matte-black American-built fighter jet was one of many purchased and heavily modified by Britain’s Royal Navy for under-the-radar special operations just like this one.
Lord Alexander Hawke, a former Royal Navy pilot and combat veteran of the Gulf War, now a seasoned British intelligence officer with MI6, had to smile.
Like the Syrian hospital bed he’d only recently escaped, the sleek F-16’s single seat reclined at an angle of exactly thirty degrees, transforming the deadly Viper, Hawke thought, into something along the lines of a supersonic Barcalounger. Leave it to the Americans to worry about fighter pilot comfort.
His eyes flicked over the dimly lit instrument array and found nothing remotely exciting. Even the hazy reddish glow inside the cockpit somehow reassured him that all was well. He was less than six hundred nautical miles from the tiny island of Xiachuan, his destination, and closing fast. Every mile he put behind him lessened the chance of a Chinese Sukhoi 33 jet interceptor or a surface-to-air missile blasting him out of the sky. Although equipped with the very latest antimissile defense systems, the Viper was no stealth fighter.
He was vulnerable and he knew it. Should he be forced to eject and was captured by the Red Chinese, he’d be tortured mercilessly before he was killed. A British intelligence officer flying an unmarked American fighter jet had no business entering Chinese airspace. But he did have business, very serious business, and his success might well avert impending hostilities that could lead to global war.
That was his mission. And he’d gladly chosen to accept it.
n London one week earlier, “C,” as the chief of MI6 was traditionally called, had summoned Hawke to join him for lunch at his men’s club, Boodle’s. Lord Hawke had thought it was a purely social invitation. Usually the old man conducted serious SIS business only within the sanctum sanctorum of his office at 85 Albert Embankment. So it was a very relaxed Alex Hawke who presented himself promptly at the appointed hour of noon.
“Well, here you are at last, Alex,” C said, amiably enough. Sir David Trulove, a gruff old party thirty years Hawke’s senior, had his customary corner table at the third-floor Men’s Grill. Shafts of dusty sunlight pouring down from the tall leaded windows set the table crystal and silver afire, all sparkle and gleam. Above the table, ragged tendrils of tobacco smoke hung in wreaths and coils, turning and twisting slowly in the sunlit room.
The dining room at Boodle’s was, by any standard, one of the poshest man-caves in London.
C took a spartan sip of his gin and bitters, looked his subordinate up and down in a cursory fashion, and said, “I must say, a bit of convalescence becomes you. You’re looking rather fit again, Alex. ‘Steel true, blade straight,’ as Conan Doyle would have it. Sit, sit.”
Hawke, favoring his injured right leg, sat. He paid scant attention to such “on the job” injuries. They simply went with the territory. The nasty business in a Syrian prison hospital was already receding from memory.
“Most kind of you, sir. I’ve been looking forward to this all week.”
“Let’s see if you still feel that way at the conclusion. What are you drinking? My club, my treat,” Trulove said, catching a waiter’s eye.
“Gosling’s, please. The Black Seal, neat. So. Trouble, I take it,” Hawke said after C had ordered his rum.
“No end of it, sadly. The bloody Chinese again.”
“Something new? I thought I was fairly well up to speed.”
“Well, Alex, you know those inscrutable Mandarins in Beijing as well as I do. Always some new wrinkle up their red silk sleeves. It’s that abominable South China Sea situation, I’m afraid.”
Hawke’s rum arrived. He took a sip and said, “What now, sir? Don’t tell me they’ve blockaded one of the world’s busiest trade routes.”
“No, no, not yet anyway. Still, simply outrageous behavior. They unilaterally extended their territorial claims in the South China Sea hundreds of miles south and east from their most southerly province of Hainan. All done with zero regard for international maritime law. They now claim a huge U-shaped area of the sea, a claim that overlaps areas that Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Brunei say belong to them.”
“Good Lord. With what possible justification?”
“Beijing says its right to the area comes from two thousand years of history, when the Paracel and Spratly island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation. Vietnam says, rightly, that both island chains lie entirely within its territory. That it has actively ruled over both chains since the seventeenth century and has the documents to prove it.”
“Bastards have created a flash point as dangerous as the Iranians and the Strait of Hormuz. Clearly global implications.”
“Yes. And now they’ve begun making intolerable demands. They’re demanding that every vessel transiting these formerly wide-open routes must first ask permission of the Chinese government. We will not, bloody hell, ask them permission for any such thing! Nor will anyone else.”
“Of course not. And the Western countermove?”
“The United States is dramatically increasing its naval presence in the region, of course. And, as you well know, they’ve deployed U.S. Marines to Darwin in Australia. Meanwhile, the PM, in a weak moment, actually had an extraordinary idea. The allies are going to assemble a massive convoy, Alex. Warships from the Royal Navy, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the Yanks with an entire carrier battle group, and seven or eight other countries. Full steam ahead under their bloody noses and see what they do about it.”
“Well, for starters, they might take out a U.S. carrier with one of their killer satellites.”
“Hmm. Good to see the Syrians didn’t break your brain as well as your leg. That is a consideration, Alex. A few pantywaists in the U.S. Congress are thus far unwilling to go along with the scheme for fear of losing one of their billion-dollar babies. So, our convoy scheme is paralyzed at the moment. But, look, we’re not going to sit around on our arses and let this stand. Not for one blasted moment.”
“What are we going to do about it?”
“You mean what are
going to do about it, dear boy. That’s why I’m springing for lunch.”
“No free lunch, as they say.”
“How can I help, sir? I’ve been deemed fit for active service as of yesterday morning.”
C looked around to establish if anyone was within earshot and then said, “We at Six have established a back-channel communication with a high-ranking Chinese naval officer. Someone with a working brain in his head who doesn’t want to go to war over his government’s deliberate and insane maritime provocation any more than we do.”
“This sounds good.”
“It is. Very.”
Hawke leaned forward and quietly said, “The Chinese are well aware that they cannot possibly afford to go to war with the West now. In a decade, perhaps, but certainly not now.”
“Of course not. It’s an obvious political ploy, albeit an extremely dangerous one. They wish to divert attention from their burgeoning internal domestic turmoil, particularly Tibet, with a bellicose show of force. Show the peasant population and the increasingly restive middle class just how powerful they now are.”
“But you’re going to put a stop to it, Lord Hawke. I’ve arranged a secret rendezvous for you with Admiral Tiao Tsang on a small island in a remote quadrant of the South China Sea. It was formerly a Japanese air force base, now abandoned because of the territorial dispute. There’s an eight-thousand-foot airstrip there that should accommodate you nicely.”
“What kind of bus am I driving?”
“An American F-16 Viper. One of ours. Especially modified for nighttime insertions. All the latest offensive and defensive goodies, I assure you. Kinetic energy weapons and all that sort of thing.”
“Lovely airplane. Always wanted a crack at one.”
“You’ll get one first thing tomorrow morning at Lakenheath RAF. Three days of intensive flight training with a USAF chief instructor off your wingtip. Then off you go into the wild blue yonder.”
“This Admiral Tsang. How high ranking is he, exactly? I mean to say, is he actually powerful enough to defuse this thing?”
“Very high. Chinese chief of naval operations. You’ll find an obsessively complete dossier waiting for you when you get home. Memorize it and burn it. Now then, Alex, what will you have for lunch?”
keening wail suddenly filled the Viper’s cockpit. Holy God, he’d just been painted by enemy radar! He whipped his head around and saw the Chinese SAM missile’s exhaust flame streaking toward his Viper’s afterburner. A HongQi 61A. Where the hell had it come from? Some kind of Chinese radar-proof shore battery on a nearby atoll? None of his so-called sophisticated gadgetry had even picked the damn thing up!
He hauled back on the joystick and instantly initiated a vertical climb, standing the Viper on its tail and rocketing skyward. He deployed chaff aft and switched on the jamming devices located in the airplane’s tail section. He was almost instantaneously at forty thousand feet and climbing, his eyes locked on the missile displayed on his radar screen. Its unverified speed, Hawke knew, was Mach 3. It was closing fast.
The deadly little bastard blew right through his chaff field without a single degree of deviation. The Chinese were not behaving according to MI6’s assessment of their military capability. With every passing second, his appointment with death went from possible to probable. He’d have to depend on the aircraft’s jamming devices and his own evasive maneuvers to survive.
He nosed the Viper over and put it into a screaming vertical dive, gaining himself precious seconds. The HongQi would have to recalculate before altering course and getting on his six again. He’d known from the second the SAM missile appeared on his screen that there was only one maneuver that stood a gnat’s chance of saving him.
A crash dive straight down into the sea.
Hairy, but sometimes effective. To succeed, however, he had to allow the deadly weapon to get dangerously close to impacting and destroying the Viper. So close in fact that when he pulled out of the dive at the last possible instant, he would be so near to the water’s surface that the missile would have zero time to correct before it hit the water doing Mach 3.
The missile nosed over as Hawke had and honed in. It was now closing at a ridiculous rate. His instrument panel told him he was clearly out of his bloody mind. The ingrained human instinct to run, to change course and escape, clawed around the edges of his conscious mind. But he’d erected a firewall around it that was impenetrable in times like this.
It was those few precious white-hot moments precisely like this one that Alex Hawke lived for. Like his father and grandfather before him, he was a warrior to the bone and he was bloody good at it. His focus at this critical moment, fueled by adrenaline, was borderline supernatural. His altimeter display screen was a blur, but he didn’t see it; the collision-avoidance alarms were screaming in his headphones, but he didn’t hear them. His grip on the stick was feather light, his hands bone dry and surgeon steady.
His mind was calmly calculating the differential between the seconds remaining until the missile impacted the Viper and the seconds until the Viper impacted the sea. Ignoring his immediate surroundings, all the screeching alarms and flashing electronic warnings, Alex Hawke began his final mental countdown. The surface of the sea was approaching at a dizzying rate . . .
Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . .
He pulled back on the stick and brought his nose up. He noticed beads of water racing across the exterior of his canopy and figured he might have caught the top of a wave coming out of the dive. . . .
You can’t get any closer in this kind of situation than when you get your nose wet
. Some smart-ass RN combat instructor had said that lo those many years ago. He barely heard the impact of the missile over the roar of his afterburners, but he did. He was in the clear and could easily visualize it, vaporizing upon contact with the concrete hard water at that speed. . . .
G forces were fierce as he initiated his climb back to his former below-the-radar altitude. That’s when his starboard wingtip caught a cresting wave that sent his aircraft out of control. He was skimming over the sea like a winged Frisbee. He felt a series of jolts as the fuselage made contact a couple of times and instinctively understood that the aircraft was seconds away from disintegrating right out from under his arse.
He reached down and grabbed the red handle to his right, yanked it, and the canopy exploded upward into the airstream and disappeared. The rocket motors beneath his seat instantly propelled him out of the spinning cockpit and straight up into the black sky. Seconds later, his chute deployed and he had a bird’s-eye view of his airplane turning into varying sizes of scrap-heap metal and disappearing into the deep.
He yanked the cord, which disengaged him from his seat, watched it fall, and moments later his boots hit the water. It was cold as hell, but he started shedding gear as quickly as he could. He was unhurt at least and able to tread water until his life jacket inflated.
So far so good,
he thought, keeping his spirits up surprisingly well for a downed airman all alone.
Normally, there’d be an EPIRB attached to his shoulder harness. Upon contact with water, it would immediately begin broadcasting his GPS coordinates to a passing satellite. He could hang out for a while here in the South China Sea and wait for one of Her Majesty’s Navy choppers to pluck him out of the water and winch him up. But of course he had no distress radio beacon, no EPIRB.