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Trinity's Child

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Language  English
Publication date  October 1983
ISBN  978-0-399-12777-9
Author  William Prochnau
3.8/5 Goodreads

Publisher  Putnam Pub Group
Pages  400 pages (Hardcover)
Originally published  1983
Trinity's Child imagesgrassetscombooks1377536095l1076258jpg
Adaptations  By Dawn's Early Light (1990)
Genres  Alternate history, Science Fiction
Similar  Alternate history books, Other books

Trinity's Child is a 1983 novel by William Prochnau. The book depicts a nuclear war waged between the United States of America and the Soviet Union. During the waning years of the Cold War, the United States has engaged in a massive military buildup, hoping to press the economy of the Soviet Union to breaking point and so force them into political compromise.


In the book's scenario, hardline elements pressure the Soviet Premier into launching an attack on the US before it has the chance to squeeze the Soviets any more.

The attack goes forward, and all the consequences of the doomsday scenario are laid bare, with conflicting claimants to the US Presidency as the line of succession breaks apart, devastation on the ground, and military staff having to choose between a treason which might save what's left of their country, and a duty which might lead to the extinction of the human race itself.

The novel covers fifteen hours in which critical decisions are made.

Part I: A surprise Soviet Attack

The Soviet Union launches a limited nuclear counter-force strike against the United States, hoping to destroy their military capability while leaving the civilian population relatively intact.

The US President, who has fallen asleep in front of the TV one night in the living quarters of the White House, gets an emergency call from the head of SAC in the bunker at Offutt Air Force Base. The General,(codename Icarus) informs the President that a Soviet first strike is underway. Knowing there had been false alarms, the President, at first, thinks that it a computer error.

Frustrated, Icarus eventually convinces him that it is real.

The President receives a HOTLINE message by teleprinter by the Premier, as the missiles are but minutes away, in which he offers the United States three choices:

  1. Accept the damage and the exchange will end.
  2. Respond in kind (which would result in the deaths of 3 to 9 million people on both sides), which would incur no third strike from the Soviets.
  3. Respond with a massive counterattack (to which the Soviets would respond in kind).

Icarus believes the HOTLINE message to be a ruse and that the Soviet leadership will retaliate massively anyway, thereby crushing the United States. As the order is passed on, the first wave of Soviet ICBMs and SLBMs arrive, crippling most of America's missile silos and bomber bases.

A missile aimed at Andrews Air Force Base, so as to prevent the President from leaving Washington, D.C., overshoots its target and detonates in the vicinity of Chevy Chase, Maryland. Icarus then informs the President that the Soviets have launched a second strike and urges the President to launch their remaining ICBMs and bombers not destroyed in the first exchange. The President reluctantly gives the order just before SAC and Omaha, Nebraska, are destroyed.

As he is evacuated from the White House to be taken to Dover Air Force Base, the President is informed aboard Marine One that the second Soviet launch was directed at the Chinese, who had launched their own strike against the Soviets in accordance to a treaty with the United States. Seeing his hasty response will result in further retaliatory strikes, the President falls into a stupor. Suddenly, a missile detonates over nearby Andrews AFB, and causes the helicopter to crash.

As missiles speed towards their targets and the alert goes out, the novel begins its sub-plot: tracking the actions of 'Polar Bear One', a nuclear armed B-52 bomber. Polar Bear One is ordered into the air to speed towards its 'Positive Control Point' just outside the Soviet Union to await orders.

Part II: Finding 'The man'

Believing the President to be dead, Renning's deputy SAC commander, a US Navy admiral code named "Harpoon" is given the assignment of locating a successor. It is possible that many people high in the list are still alive under the rubble in Washington, D.C. or elsewhere but unable to contact them, Harpoon's rulebook says to find the most likely successor and go with him.

He learns through the 'Presidential Successor Locator System' that the Secretary of the Interior is in the swamplands outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana and thus begins looking for NO8 on the line of succession.

Harpoon's Boeing E-4B (The 'Doomsday Plane') lands in the city without air traffic control on a runway not meant for such huge jets, with the terminal building and air traffic control tower gutted by nearby fires. The FBI, Secret Service, and Army search teams find the secretary and bring him to the airport with a small secret service escort from their local field office. The Secretary had already been sworn in by a federal judge traveling with the search team, and was given the code name 'Condor'. The plane leaves Baton Rouge minutes before the city is struck by a Soviet ICBM.

Harpoon, not knowing yet who is in control in the Soviet Union and in a fog of confusion with the communications network down due to EMP, wants to get airborne as quickly as possible before mobs ransack the airport and damage the plane, or the same result comes from another missile landing. As the plane climbs to a steep takeoff, Harpoon gets a call from one of the underground bunkers tracking enemy activity and inform him that a submarine commander, apparently on his own authority, is criss-crossing the Doomsday planes route in an effort at a decapitation strike. Harpoon is unable to relay to the baffled Condor the true level of danger in which the aircraft is until one of the secret services Uzis discharges inside the cabin when they get a jolt from a nearby shock wave. The one shot kills the judge, who had been part of the search team and came on board.

Part III: Making 'The Decision'

In the presidential suite of the Doomsday plane, the new president sits at the conference table with a battle staff of flag officers (including the Vice Chiefs of Staff, experts on the Soviet military and nuclear warfare generally), looking at maps that outline the condition of the world. Harpoon briefs Condor on what has happened, as well as the difficult decisions that have to be made. He outlines that it has been a relatively even exchange with the US taking slightly higher casualties.

Along with Omaha and Baton Rouge, the cities of Seattle, Los Angeles, Colorado Springs, New Orleans, Phoenix, Raleigh, and Washington, D.C., have been destroyed. Massive social disorder and rioting have broken out in American's remaining cities. It is briefly mentioned that Europe remained neutral during the conflict and that India and Israel have declared war on Pakistan. It is further noted that 'many mistakes are being made', for example a Soviet nuclear missile aimed at China goes off course and detonates in India. The Indians then hit Pakistan with a nuclear strike because they assume that the detonation was, in fact, a Pakistani missile.

The admiral then briefs Condor on SIOP and the complexity of nuclear war. He worries that the new President is overlysimplifying things and is not appreciating the nuance of nuclear war. He explains there are no victors in a nuclear war, no victory by body count, and the only sane thing to do now is turn this thing off.

Another flag officer then explains to that the world has taken a lot of abuse in its time, and even the damage done today would be absorbed and things would eventually go back to normal. However, if there is another nuclear exchange it could spell disaster for the planet, including human extinction from nuclear winter or the destruction of vital parts of the atmosphere.

Following on from this, Harpoon urges Condor to turn the bombers, orbiting their positive control points just outside the USSR, and see if the Soviets respond in kind. That is a way of communicating with them and signaling an intent to de-escalate, as communications are now down and direct talks are not yet possible.

Colonel Fargo (Codename 'Librarian'), a Soviet capabilities expert, believes however that Condor should order the bombers on a decapitation strike, a 'grand tour' of the Soviets targeting the leadership bunkers. He believes the Soviets will then overthrow the government once the 'head of the communist body' is cut off and that the US can use asymmetrical warfare such as using civilian airliners as rammers against Soviet bombers.

The admiral thinks that it is insane that a country of 'panicked Baton Rouges' cannot put together such a plan, and the Soviet people are in no shape after nuclear war to start a revolution.

Condor goes to his office to think the two options over and to pray.

Part IV: 'The Decision' and Treason

Believing that the US is "losing" the war by having a higher casualty count, Condor orders the decapitation strike. Orders go out for the "Grand Tour".

'Harpoon', stunned at Condors decision, resigns his position. On his way out of the Presidential suite, 'the Librarian' has to remind him to give the President 'the biscuit', the plastic card with the codes required to order a nuclear strike. Condor appoints the Librarian as his new adviser.

'Polar Bear One' gets the orders for the grand tour. At first relieved of not having to drop nuclear gravity bombs on civilians, the crew discusses the consequences of a Soviet Union without leadership and concludes it would mean more chaos and loose nukes, and nobody with whom to negotiate. They envision panicked colonels in Europe without leadership letting tactical nukes go, submarine captains surfacing to fire without knowing the full story, etc. They turn their bomber around rather than risk the future of the planet.

Seeing it as a sign for a truce, the Soviets turn 15 of their bombers around. Condor orders Polar Bear One shot down.

On the phone from the Looking Glass plane, Condor is urged by the flag officer now in charge of SAC ('Alice') aboard the Looking Glass Plane, who has taken over for 'Icarus', to turn another squadron of B-52s in response to the Soviet squadron turning, saying it will lead to a cease fire and end the war. Condor, seeing the act by the lone bomber as cowardly, states that the United States has "one deserter and the Soviets have 15". 'The Librarian' insists that the Soviet move has given the US a clear military advantage. In his quarters, Harpoon contacts "Alice" and asks him to turn the bombers without Condors authorization. He initially refuses.

Polar Bear One encounters an aircraft carrier on its return trip. Two fighter jets get ready to shoot them down when their own carrier gets torpedoed by a Soviet submarine, and the fighter pilots lose the will to shoot down one of their own planes.

Part V: Two Presidents, Two Decisions

Civilians find the crashed Marine One and take the President and his military aide to a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) bunker in the outskirts of Olney, Maryland.

There, his military aide (the carrier of the nuclear football) learns that the Soviet premier is attempting to make contact through a shortwave radio. Not knowing if the call is authentic, the President, now with his legs broken from the crash and blind from the flash of the nuclear detonation, negotiates a cease-fire with his Soviet counterpart.

The President manages to make contact with Alice, who at first does not believe the identity of his commander-in-chief. However, after much urging and conversation, Alice comes to realize that the man he is speaking to is authentic and gives him the codes as the President has lost his card in the Marine One crash. The President orders Alice to turn the bombers around. Alice, a US Air Force general, cannot issue direct orders to the submarines, and the President's identity codes conflict with Condor's.

The President then makes contact with Condor, urging him to help secure a cease fire. Condor, thinking he is a Soviet imposter, refuses and hangs up. Alice tells the President that if both he and Condor give the subs two different sets of orders, the sub Captains will assume the Soviets have intercepted US military communications and gotten the codes in the intervening hours and so will go with the original orders.

When the first Soviet nuclear strike was incoming, SAC had ordered the navy subs to submerge and hide and resurface in a few hours to listen for orders. They were instructed that if they hear nothing, they should fire their missiles.

Without Condor's help, there appears to be no way to stop the march to Armageddon.

Part VI: 'Turning it off'

During the 7-hour window, the President and Alice attempt to create a plan to stop Condor. Alice then states that he will use the Looking Glass as a weapon to intercept the E-4B, thus killing Condor and relinquishing authority to the President. The President refuses the plan, urging that there must be another way.

Alice convinces him otherwise, and the President accepts his sacrifice. Several hours elapse, as Alice attempts to catch up to Condor, who declares the Looking Glass to be manned by treasonous men. Minutes before the submarines emerge and the order is given to launch, the flight crew of the E-4B, loyal to Alice, turn the plane into the path of the Looking Glass which enables it to intercept the E-4B, killing everyone on board. Command is returned to the President, who orders a full cessation of hostilities of his military. The Soviet Union responds in kind. However, the outcome of the conflicts in the Middle East and the Soviets and Chinese are left unanswered.

Television adaptation

The book was made into a television movie, By Dawn's Early Light. There are some significant differences between the two; most significantly, in the movie the initial nuclear exchange is prompted by renegade Russian terrorists rather than part of a Soviet plot. That is likely intended to avoid demonizing either side as being the aggressor. Another element of the movie is a romantic subplot between the captain of the B-52 and his female co-pilot, which is absent from the book.


Trinity's Child Wikipedia