Launch code, p.1

Launch Code, page 1


Launch Code

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Launch Code

  Launch Code

  Michael Ridpath



  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  Chapter 43

  Chapter 44

  Chapter 45

  Chapter 46

  Chapter 47

  Chapter 48

  Chapter 49

  Chapter 50

  Chapter 51

  Chapter 52

  Chapter 53

  Chapter 54

  Chapter 55

  Chapter 56

  Chapter 57

  Chapter 58

  Chapter 59

  Chapter 60

  Chapter 61

  Chapter 62

  Author’s Note

  Free Novella – The Polar Bear Killing

  Review This Book

  Also by Michael Ridpath

  About the Author

  for Betsy and Jim

  ‘Never, perhaps, in the post-war decades was the situation in the world as explosive and hence more difficult and unfavourable as in the first half of the 1980s.’ Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, 1986

  ‘We may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it.’ Robert Gates, Deputy Director of CIA and later Secretary of Defense


  November 1983, Norwegian Sea

  The end of the world looks like this.

  Man creates the means to obliterate the planet: sixteen Poseidon missiles, each with their own ten independent warheads, enough to provoke a massive retaliation from the country at which they are fired. Machines transmit the order. Humans obey.

  The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, the doctrine which preserves peace in a nuclear world, demands that humans will obey, and that the enemy knows that they will obey.

  Humans like Lieutenant William M. Guth (USN), assistant weapons officer on the USS Alexander Hamilton, loitering one hundred and twenty miles north-east of the Faroe Islands, deep in the cold embrace of the Norwegian Sea.

  The Hamilton was Bill Guth’s first nuclear submarine. In the two years since he had joined the crew at the end of 1981, the Cold War had been steadily warming up. The rhetoric from the American president Reagan and the Soviet leader Andropov had become more heated, the Americans and the Russians were deploying intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe and in September a Korean airliner had been shot down having strayed into Soviet airspace over Eastern Siberia.

  Yet Bill had become more confident in his own abilities and in the abilities of the crew members around him. They were never idle as they puttered along at three knots a few hundred feet beneath the surface. Ever more inventive training exercises simulated all manner of disasters from fires on board, to leaks, to shutting down the submarine’s nuclear reactor, to evading torpedo attacks.

  And yes, to launching the Alexander Hamilton’s nuclear weapons.

  As assistant weapons officer, Bill had an important role in the complicated launch sequence, along with the twenty or so ‘missile techs’ who worked alongside him, and his immediate boss, the weapons officer.

  He was making his way up the ladder to the upper level of the missile compartment when the announcement echoed through the submarine.

  ‘Alert One, Alert One!’

  He scrambled to the top of the ladder, grabbed the bar over the hatch into the operations compartment and swung his six-foot frame feet first through the hole. He hurried the short distance to op-conn, the tiny room between the radio shack and the control room, where the printout of an Emergency Action Message waited for him. A few seconds later he was joined by his friend and fellow lieutenant, Lars da Silva.

  Lars seemed tense, but calm. Beside them, the radio chief extracted code manuals from his safe and dropped them on the tiny desk with a thud.

  ‘Let’s do this,’ said Lars.

  Bill didn’t feel calm; Bill felt scared.

  This was their fifth patrol together. During that time Bill and Lars had decoded dozens of EAMs, real and simulated, many garbled in ingenious ways. Over the last two days a sequence of four EAMs had been received, each more concerning than the one preceding it. The most recent, received at 0512 that morning, had raised the level of readiness for nuclear war to DEFCON 2, which was only one step from launching missiles.

  The whole crew had been waiting for the next message. Dreading it. And here it was.

  Bill pushed the fear to one side and started decoding the string of four-letter groups.

  This message wasn’t garbled. This message was very clear.

  Lars glanced up at Bill. ‘Holy shit.’

  Bill closed his eyes and nodded.

  Bill had no time to think about the decoded message in his hand. He had trained for this. He knew what to do.

  Followed by Lars, Bill carried the EAM through to the control room. The blood was thudding in his ears, and he was holding the scrap of paper so tightly it was shaking slightly, but he was careful to freeze the muscles in his face.

  Maybe he looked as calm as the rest of the crew. Maybe they were as scared as he was.

  He handed the message to the captain, who was waiting for him, a briefcase of top-secret launch manuals at his feet.

  ‘Captain,’ Bill began, uttering words he had used in training many times before. His voice sounded flat and surprisingly calm, at least to his own ears. ‘We have received a properly formatted message from the National Command Authority for strategic missile launch.’

  ‘I concur,’ said Lars next to him.

  Commander Driscoll was a short man with wavy iron-grey hair and round glasses. He exuded quiet authority. His voice, tinged with a slight Texan twang, was always measured and calm. He commanded with his eyes. They were blue, and by turns could be reassuring, inspiring, angry or urgent. Now they were alert, expectant, ready for the message that he knew was coming.

  He reached out for it, reading it with the tall figure of Lieutenant Commander Robinson, the boat’s executive officer, at his shoulder.











  ‘I concur,’ said the XO.

  ‘Captain, request permission to authenticate,’ Bill asked.

  ‘Permission granted.’

  Each stage of the process, from the initial receipt of
the EAM to the eventual launch, was carefully scripted with procedures that were spelled out in checklists and orange folders marked ‘Top Secret’, procedures that had been refined over the years to ensure that there were always at least two officers involved at each stage or, in the case of the launch order itself, four.

  The crew knew each stage intimately, but part of the procedure was that the checklists had to be followed to the letter. Nothing could be assumed. Nothing could be skipped.

  The next stage of the process required an authentication code on the message to be compared to a code printed on a card locked deep inside two safes on the submarine. This was to ensure that the message had really come from National Military Command Center, and not some maniac with a desire to start a nuclear war.

  The safes were back in op-conn. Lars opened the outer safe, and Bill opened the inner one. He pulled out the small package, ripped off the silver wrapping, and took the card back to the captain. Bill read out the authentication code on the card to Lars.

  It matched the code on the EAM.

  ‘The message is authentic, sir,’ Bill said.

  ‘I concur,’ said Lars.

  The XO glanced at the card and the message. ‘I concur.’

  The captain reached for the 1-MC shipwide microphone. ‘Man Battle Stations Missile for Strategic Launch. Set Condition 1 SQ. Spin up missiles one, two and nine. The release of nuclear weapons has been authorized. This is not a drill. This is the captain speaking.’

  Although he had heard the words many times before in training – with the exception of ‘this is not a drill’ – they came as a shock to Bill. Once again he could feel fear gnawing at the edges of his consciousness, once again he banished it.

  Focus. Concentrate. Do your job.

  Just like everyone else.

  The captain handed the mic to Robinson who repeated the message word for word. The crew would only follow launch orders if they had been given by both the captain and the XO, his second-in-command.

  Immediately a loud bong, bong, bong reverberated through the boat. The general alarm. The submarine became alive with quiet, controlled movement, as more sailors squeezed into the already crowded control room.

  This was the nerve centre of the boat. The captain stood on a raised metal platform beside the ship’s two periscopes, the ‘conn’. In front of him stood the diving officer overseeing a large ballast control panel and two young sailors gripping control columns with which they adjusted the submarine’s attitude and direction. To the left and right of the room were panels of lamps, switches, buttons and monitors, and a small navigation plotting station with stools and a chart stand. The overhead was a mess of pipes, tubes, wires, microphones and intercom handsets. To the men quietly busying themselves, each wire, each lamp, each switch was familiar, as was its role in the smooth operation of the submarine. Everyone was wearing blue ‘poopy-suit’ coveralls: khaki belts for officers and chiefs, blue for sailors.

  ‘Can you believe this, Bill?’ Lars muttered quietly.

  ‘No.’ Part of him couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe what the order meant. But what did it mean?

  ‘Did you catch that target package?’ Lars whispered. ‘That was East Berlin. Moscow, Leningrad and East Berlin. That doesn’t make any sense. Why East Berlin? That’s gonna flatten West Berlin too.’

  ‘Yeah, I saw that.’

  ‘Well? Why? What’s going on?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ said Bill. Part of him was trying not to think about it. To follow protocols precisely. To do what he was supposed to do.

  ‘It’s the exact same target package we were given in that drill three weeks ago.’

  ‘Yeah, I recognized it,’ said Guth.

  Bill and Lars were more than shipmates, they were friends. They had graduated in the same class from the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and had both joined the Blue Crew of the Alexander Hamilton on the same day.

  They had talked about this, about the order to launch nuclear weapons, many times.

  Lars stepped forward. ‘Captain?’ Lars was the same height as his commanding officer, but slighter. Usually the captain appeared calm and relaxed in the most stressful of situations, but now the tension showed in his clenched jaw and hunched shoulders.

  His sharp eyes darted to the junior officer. ‘Yes, Lieutenant da Silva?’

  Lars swallowed. ‘The target package makes no sense, sir. Moscow, Leningrad, East Berlin. It will destroy West Berlin. All those US troops stationed there. The civilian population.’

  Bill was shocked at what Lars had said. It wasn’t up to a junior officer to question launch orders. That was not part of the protocol.

  The captain’s eyes narrowed. Bill could feel the tension rising in the control room.

  The captain paused. Paused rather than hesitated. He was taking Lars’s comment seriously.

  ‘The target package may not make sense to us, Lieutenant da Silva. But it is a properly formatted order. Our duty is to obey it, not to discuss it.’

  Lars persevered. ‘And it’s the same target package we received three weeks ago.’

  ‘It is,’ said Driscoll.

  ‘Isn’t it possible that this could be a repeat of that exercise EAM sent in error?’

  If this had been an exercise, Driscoll would have dismissed Lars from the control room with a crushing reprimand. And Bill knew that’s what the rule book said he should do.

  But this wasn’t an exercise. Commander Driscoll was listening. And thinking. Double-checking his own assumptions.

  The whole control room was listening too.

  ‘The exercise target package may have been selected because the NMCC knew it was likely to be used. And now they want us to use it.’

  ‘But why?’ said Da Silva. ‘Why East Berlin?’

  ‘We don’t know. But we’re not supposed to know. XO?’

  He turned to Lieutenant Commander Robinson. Unlike Bill or Lars, the XO had to agree with the launch orders, or nothing would happen.

  Robinson was taller than his captain, balding, with intense dark eyes under thick eyebrows. This was his first patrol on the Alexander Hamilton, but already the junior officers and the crew respected him. As did Commander Driscoll.

  ‘It is a properly formatted order, sir. And, as I explained before, in my opinion the likelihood of a Soviet first strike in the current situation is high.’

  Robinson had come straight from a desk job at the Pentagon, where he had seen things that had troubled him. Things that he had passed on to the captain and the other officers in the wardroom the night before.

  ‘Very well. I have listened to your concern, Lieutenant da Silva, but we have a valid order, which we will execute.’ The captain grabbed a mic. ‘Weapons, conn. Shift target package to SLBM three-six-one-five-five-slash-four. This is the captain.’

  Driscoll handed the mic to Robinson. ‘Shift target package to SLBM three-six-one-five-five-slash-four. This is the XO.’

  ‘But, sir.’ Lars moved closer to the captain. ‘We should go to periscope depth and check the EAM. What if it is an error, sir?’

  The captain’s eyes focused on the junior officer, burning with authority through the lenses of his spectacles. ‘Lieutenant da Silva, you know that’s against all operating procedures. And for very good reason. Now get back to your post.’

  There were Soviet fast-attack submarines in the Norwegian Sea, constantly on the lookout for American and British boomers. It was a fruitless task, because the only real way the Soviet submarines could find the Americans was by listening for them, and since vessels like the Alexander Hamilton glided slowly and silently hundreds of feet below the surface, the Russians never heard anything.

  While submerged at patrol depth, the Hamilton could only receive radio communications, not transmit. To request confirmation of the Emergency Action Message, the Hamilton would have to rise to periscope depth and announce to Soviet listening stations exactly where she was. If indeed a nuclear war was breaking out, then any nearby Soviet
attack submarine would swoop on the Hamilton and torpedo her before she had a chance to launch her birds. Which was why operating procedures forbade the course of action Lars was suggesting.

  Lars stood his ground, struggling to control his agitation. ‘Captain. We must check that message. If the message is an error and we launch those three missiles, the Soviets will retaliate and there will be a full-blown nuclear war. Our country will be obliterated. The world will be obliterated.’

  Driscoll’s response was rapid and firm. ‘Lieutenant da Silva. You will not question my orders. Either you go back to your post right now, or I will have you relieved. Do I make myself clear?’

  Lars blinked. ‘Aye, aye, sir.’ He turned away.

  Bill, too, turned, to make his way down to his post in the missile control centre. The captain called after him. ‘Lieutenant Guth!’

  Bill stopped at the compartment exit, and Driscoll moved over to him, speaking in a low tone. ‘Lieutenant Guth, unlock the small-arms locker and fetch me a sidearm. I have a feeling I may need it.’

  ‘Aye, aye, sir.’

  As assistant weapons officer, Bill was one of two men who had keys to the small-arms locker. The other was the chief of the boat, the master chief petty officer who was at that moment the diving officer, directing the submarine’s manoeuvres.

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