Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, Hawaii
HIS ride showed up at the Navy Lodge that morning, as promised. “Captain Lenson?” The driver peered up, bulky in flak vest, sidearm, and helmet. He had a black carbine bracketed by the Humvee’s wheel. “Needed a lift, up to Camp Smith?”
“Don this vest, sir.”
Dan started to protest—they were only going from one base area to another, and the temperature was already in the low nineties—but pulled the Kevlar over his khakis. Then wriggled in, jamming his briefcase by his feet and settling his combination cap in his lap. The motor roared and he settled back, trying to get comfortable in a seat obviously designed for someone much shorter.
Hastily erected barbed-wire-and-concrete barriers, as well as bright orange plastic road barriers—confiscated, no doubt, from the Hawaii roads department—walled off the base area. Dan shaded his eyes as the morning sun flashed off the Southeast Loch. Off Ford Island, the Arizona Memorial bridged white against the glowing water. Beyond loomed the gray bulk of USS Missouri. A war had ended on her decks, with the surrender of an empire.
Now a new war had come, and with it new horrors.
The driver muttered, “What they got you doing in this fucked-up war, Captain?”
“Uh, saw some action off Taiwan … but right now, I’m sort of up in the air.”
The marine’s glance snagged. He squinted at the road, then back at Dan’s chest. “Is that the…? Sir?”
The blue-and-white ribbon often got that reaction. “Yeah.”
“The Congressional? Sir?”
“Jeez. I mean … now I know who you are. Um, what I said, about the war being fucked up, I meant…”
He trailed off, and Dan didn’t ask him to elaborate. Because he was exactly right.
They skirted the pier area, tires humming. Deserted, except for one littoral combat ship and the gray upperworks of a Burke-class: USS Mitscher, at the naval shipyard. The destroyer had absorbed three missiles in the Taiwan Strait action. He should stop in and see her CO.… Two weeks of medical leave had caught him up on sleep, restoring him somewhat from the Savo crud, and he’d gotten his neck and shoulder looked at. He’d written an after-action report, and put his people in for decorations. But he still had outstanding issues. Such as the investigation into his actions aboard USS Savo Island, the Ticonderoga-class cruiser he’d commanded.
Dan twisted a heavy gold Annapolis ring. He was on his way in to meet with Barry “Nick” Niles. Once Dan’s patron, then nemesis, then reluctant rabbi again, Niles had just taken over as chief of naval operations. Now, apparently, he’d come out to consult with the theater commander about the direction of the war.
The driver halted at a barriered gate. Diesels snorted. A crane-arm rotated in slow jerks, dangling another concrete barrier into place. Armed sentries examined their IDs, then waved them through, returning their scrutiny to the road in.
Dan cleared his throat. “What’s the Corps take? We expect Hawaii to be attacked?”
“Happened before,” the sergeant observed laconically.
Dan raised his eyebrows, but couldn’t think of a comeback.
The war had begun with a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India. China’s attack on India, to support its ally, had broadened the conflict. The U.S. and India had imposed a blockade. Escalating in turn, the People’s Republic had knocked out American communications and reconnaissance satellites.
When the Allies countered, Premier Zhang Zurong had upped the ante again. He’d suppressed Taiwanese defenses with ballistic missiles and air attacks, then launched a cross-strait invasion. And when USS Franklin D. Roosevelt had sailed to assist the Taiwanese, he’d done the unthinkable. Destroyed the entire battle group with a nuclear-tipped missile … killing almost ten thousand U.S. servicemen and -women.
Meanwhile, war had resumed between South and North Korea, and U.S. bases in Okinawa had been taken down with missile strikes, then seaborne invasion.
Now battles raged in India and Vietnam, on Taiwan and Okinawa. And so far, the Chinese seemed to be winning them all.
The driver murmured, “Said you saw action, Captain?”
“Fighting the slants, right?”
Dan hadn’t heard this term before, but it was easy to guess what it meant. The marine said, “So, they tough, or what? We gonna come back out there, right?”
“They’re definitely tough,” Dan said. “We’re going to have to put our shoulders to the wheel to win this one.”
They left the expressway for a winding two-laner, climbing through a residential area. Many of the homes were boarded up, as if for a typhoon. The driver noticed him noticing. “A lot of the folks up here packed up and left town. Went back to the mainland.”
A wooded hill rose. They passed a football field, a baseball field, parking, a pool. At another sentry post, a machine gun overwatched sandbagged barriers. Dan’s ID got a more thorough inspection here, and his briefcase was searched. Sweat trickled under his Kevlar.
Finally they were waved through this one too. The engine labored as the Humvee climbed. At last it coasted to a halt beneath nodding nipa palms, between two huge new buildings. “In that side door, not the front,” his escort advised as they got out. So the guy was there to take him in personally. “You can leave the ballistic protection in the vehicle, sir,” he added.
Building 700, the Nimitz-MacArthur Pacific Command Center, overlooked the harbor and the shipyard. To the north rose ridges of hills, the nearest crowned with homes, the farthest still green with palms and tropical hardwoods, laced with pearlescent mist. To the east rolled more forest, more hills. To the west, the city. The palm fronds clashed in a sudden breeze, like the rattle of swordplay. He stood for a moment looking down toward the sea, letting the wind dry his sweat. Then followed his escort into a concrete entranceway.
* * *
HE’D figured to meet Niles in some office, but his escort led him down a back corridor to an unmarked steel door. After another ID check, the driver racked his rifle in a wall mount, getting a metal tag like a coat check in exchange.
The four-person elevator started slow. Dan looked for a control panel, but there wasn’t any. Then it dropped very fast. He grabbed his nose and cleared his ears. He grunted, “How far down are we…?” Then comprehension arrived.
The Navy had determined never to be taken by surprise again.
He stepped out into an icy-cold, compact, hospital-stark, LED-lit passageway.
The marine led the way. Obviously he’d been here before. Dan nodded to Army personnel—they tended to sulk if ignored in passageways—but didn’t to Navy or Air Force unless they greeted him first. Which most, looking harried or intent on their own tasks, didn’t. Meeting rooms, situation rooms, intelligence spaces, opened off the central passageway. They turned one corner, then another. Dan’s nape prickled as he recognized the right-angle designs, the slanted-away walls at the corners. It looked like feng shui, but it was to limit blast damage, in case a bunker-penetrator made it this deep.
Admiral Barry “Nick” Niles stood before a large-screen display, his back to the door. With his arms crossed, his shoulders looked even broader than they were. The screen glowed with the Pacific Command logo, an eagle with wings spread over a globe oriented to display the Western Ocean. Niles seemed to be studying the Chinese coast. It was the first time Dan had ever seen him in a civilian suit. It didn’t make the new CNO look any smaller.
“Admiral? Captain Lenson’s here.” The marine eased the heavy door shut behind himself. So the guy wasn’t just any old pool driver. He must be one of the CNO’s aides.
“‘We’ll be back,’” Niles said to the screen, not turning.
He was quoting what Dan had told a pool reporter after Savo Island had limped home damaged from the battle in the strait. “They’re making you into a hero. CNN, Fox, they showcased your attack. Bankey Talmadge quoted you on the Senate floor.”
“I’m no hero, Admiral.”
“Hey, I’m not objecting. Right now, we can use some positive news. They’ve kicked us back to Guam. The Marianas. Hawaii. Still believe it? That we can win this thing?”
Dan tried to fight his Academy reflexes, in terms of coming to attention, but didn’t do all that well. “Yes, sir. If we can scrape our shit together.”
Still speaking to the screen, like the Dark Queen to her magic mirror, Niles rumbled, “There are those who don’t. Who think we’re finished, as a country.”
Dan coughed into a fist. “The Germans thought that about us, twice. The Japanese. And the Russians. Zhang’s just the latest to make that mistake.”
Silence, as if his answer were being weighed. Then Niles said reluctantly. “I hope you’re right. How’s your ship?”
“Savo’s getting a new bow. Also, the ALIS software upgrade. Sonar’s degraded—”
“A hard point. We get excuses, but no rounds. There’s adequate gun ammo, but very few missile reloads.”
“I’m working that. Who did you leave in charge?”
“My exec. Cheryl Staurulakis.”
“Good as they come.”
“Yes, sir. I put her in for the Bronze Star. And maybe we could discuss the other decorations I put in for, for my people—”
“Later, okay? Maybe we’ll leave her there. How’s the wife … Blair? Did she win her election?”
“Not sure yet, sir.”
“Not sure? What’s that mean?”
“They’re in a recount, sir. Less than two hundred votes difference.”
“Well, if she loses, could be for the best.” Niles turned away from the screen, and Dan blinked with shock at a ravaged visage. Reddened, swollen lids above sleepless eyes. Vein-shot, puffy cheeks.
Maybe we’ll leave her there … could be for the best. He contemplated both equivocal statements as Niles lumbered to a side table, bent over a notebook, and began typing, the huge fingers darting with incongruous delicacy.
Equivocation wasn’t Niles’s style. But Dan Lenson wouldn’t be here if the new CNO didn’t have something in mind. Most likely, something he wouldn’t like.
Niles cleared his throat. “I’ve been getting unpleasant questions about you from a certain European country. And from Congress.”
Congress … he knew who was behind that. “Yes, sir. May I address any of them?”
“Yeah, you may. First, about your hasty retreat after a Chinese sub sank your tanker in the East China Sea.”
“True, sir. I left the torpedo danger area after GNS Stuttgart was attacked. You can tell Berlin we were the only ballistic-missile-defense-capable unit left in theater. I withdrew to protect that asset. I left USS Mitscher to prosecute the datum and rescue survivors.”
“I see. What about your unauthorized attack on the invasion force as it crossed the Taiwan Strait?”
Dan took a deeper breath. “I kept Fleet and PaCom informed as the situation developed, to the extent compromised communications permitted. I requested guidance, but received none. I judged that if we degraded the invasion fleet, it might be enough to let the ROC kick the mainlanders off the beach. As it turned out, we sank most of their heavy armor.”
“Actually, we think now one of our subs got those transports. But it’s murky.” Niles shrugged. “Let’s say half credit. Finally, about your killing a Joint Missile Program scientist.”
“Dr. Noblos was NCIS’s prime suspect in a series of sexual assaults, rape, and attempted murder aboard Savo Island. He stole a pistol and hijacked a boat. He was headed for Chinese-held territory. He knew everything about our missile defenses. My choices were to let him go, or blow him out of the water.”
“And as usual, you took the extreme solution.”
Dan clenched his fists. “With all due respect, sir, that’s uncalled for.”
Niles sagged into a chair like a collapsing warehouse. He blinked at the bulkhead. “Maybe so … I also know about your yanking Min Jun Jung back by the scruff of the neck when he was trying to pull off a new Charge of the Light Brigade. You probably saved us the Korean Fleet there.”
A tap on the door. “Yeah,” Niles barked. A commander stuck her head in, looking apprehensive. She tilted her wrist to display a watch. “Coming,” Niles rasped. To Dan, “I’m still making my mind up about you.” He got up like a Wellsian Martian heaving himself out of the pit. “Meanwhile, why don’t you tag along to this. You’re the only one here who’s actually fought these people. Maybe you can contribute something useful for a change.”
* * *
THIS room was larger than the one he’d met Niles in. The briefer had a familiar tanned, too-handsome face. Jack Byrne, now in a gray suit and tie instead of the trop khaki or blues of a Naval Intelligence captain. They exchanged lifted eyebrows, but there was no time for more. Too many stars were settling into the front row, looking tense, impatient. Looking angry.
Byrne opened. “Admiral, Generals, CNO: a quick overview, leading to discussion of a limited set of immediate options,” he said into a sudden eerie quiet. “Most of you know this, but we have to start from the same page. Our security position in the Pacific lies in ruins. Our job is to stabilize the situation.
“Premier Zhang Zurong has threatened the continental U.S. with a secretly amassed arsenal of over a thousand nuclear warheads. His position: Beijing is now a superpower. Washington must acknowledge that by withdrawing from the Asian Rim. There are reports of food shortages in mainland China, but also of savage repression. In Hong Kong a hundred thousand people have been imprisoned or deported to the interior, and many shot in the streets. On land, massive armies are invading Vietnam, India, Mongolia, and north Burma. All, quote, to ‘restore China’s historic borders.’”
A four-star admiral leaned to confer with Niles. Dan recognized the twisted, almost deformed face of Justin “Jim” Yangerhans, the commander in chief, Pacific. The viceroy for half the globe. In charge, now, of fighting the most populous country, and the largest economy, on earth.
Which was whipping the United States soundly on every front.
Byrnes said, “Zhang’s consolidating his hold on western Taiwan. Six divisions there now, nearly half a million troops total. He’s imprisoned thousands in makeshift camps. This morning mainland troops blew up Chiang Kai-shek’s tomb. But some loyal forces are still holding out in the mountains.”
“For how long?” an Army general whispered.
Byrne continued. “The Philippines has neutralized itself, acknowledging Chinese hegemony and renouncing all claims in the China Sea. Japan’s called its navy home, and is mulling the proffered cease-fire. India, Vietnam, Australia, and South Korea are still aligned with us. Indonesia may be coming in. They can add little in the way of forces, but—location, location, location. Canada and Britain are cheering us, but from the sidelines.
“We’re still fighting. The Koreans and the U.S. Second Division are holding, but isolated and reduced to in-place logistics.” Byrne looked at Dan. “The South Korean Navy, led by Admiral Min Jun Jung, retreated shoulder to shoulder with the United States Navy, after a daring raid into the strait led by Captain Daniel V. Lenson. Who is with us here today.” Men and women craned to look in Dan’s direction. “They plan to fight on alongside us, and someday soon, return.”
Byrne lifted a finger, and a wall screen lit. A heavyset Asian in a military uniform and black plastic-rimmed glasses stared out at them. “Captain Lenson, I believe you know this man.”
Dan stared into Zhang Zurong’s expressionless, chilling gaze. The sensation was like pressing his eyeballs against cold, polished steel.
He’d met the smooth-faced, pudgy Zhang decades before, in a Chinatown restaurant, at what had seemed at the time like a family party. But “Uncle Xinhu” had turned out to be a senior colonel in the Second Department, China’s equivalent of Defense Intelligence. Dan had turned over fake Tomahawk schematics in Operation Snapdragon. But by the time the FBI had showed up on Zhang’s doorstep, he’d decamped for his homeland. Leaving a dead girl on a towpath in Georgetown … an innocent, idealistic woman Dan had loved.
He dragged himself back to the present as Byrne said, “Zhang’s executed his rivals and consolidated his position as both Party general secretary and state president. He now holds all leading titles in the state.
“On the diplomatic front, he proposes peace on the basis of ‘union and demilitarization’ of the two Chinas and the two Koreas. He offers to return Okinawa to Japan. But in exchange, all remaining U.S. bases in Japanese territory must be vacated, and alliance ties dissolved.
“He also warns that anyone who offers America basing rights is the enemy of what he calls the ‘Associated’ or ‘United’ Powers—China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Laos, and ‘Miandan,’ their puppet state in northern Myanmar.
“Finally, Russia has announced major aircraft and ordnance sales to China.” Byrne paused. “Any questions?”
One of the generals lifted a hand. “Energy supplies?”
Byrne flicked slides and briefed on stockpiles, consumption, and imports. “Seaborne imports are essentially zero, but roughly two hundred thousand tons a day of oil and liquefied natural gas are flowing in via a pipeline across Xinjiang from Pakistan.”
“Can we cut that?”
Yangerhans twisted in his chair to say over one shoulder, “It’s deep in Chinese territory, and well protected … but it’s a possible target.”
Dan felt reluctant to speak up, but finally did. “We have weak points too. Iran’s threatened to close Hormuz before. If they do—?”
Byrne said, “CentCom has plans against that contingency. If they try to close the strait again, we land an armored regiment to occupy Qeshm Island, on the eastern side of Hormuz, and cut off all Iranian exports by sea. We’ll see how they like that.” He waited a moment, then stepped back.
Yangerhans pulled his feet in, got up, and paced back and forth. He tucked his elbows like a boxer. “One thing Jack didn’t brief is the domestic reaction. They’re still suffering from power and network outages back home. The financial markets have reopened, but most folks have lost half or more of their net worth. And Zhang’s threats are having an effect, especially on the West Coast. The civil defense program’s been reactivated. People are stockpiling. Defense industries are reporting difficulties keeping labor forces in place. We’re taking steps to fix that, but they’ll take time.
“That and the focused cyberattacks on defense industries mean production is not going well. Missiles and torpedoes, especially, are in short supply. I’ve called the Canadians, Australians, British. They’ve promised to ramp up production, but their capacities have always been limited compared to ours.”
A lifted hand. “The Europeans?”
A grim look. A negative headshake. “They’ve got their own problems, with the Russians.”
Another hand; an Air Force uniform. “Admiral, the Franklin Roosevelt battle group was wiped out with a nuclear missile. Can you enlighten us on the rationale for not retaliating in kind?”
Yangerhans paced again, fingers twining behind his back. “I won’t go into my exchanges with national command authority on that issue. Suffice it to say they were … frank. The bottom line, I guess, is that as long as we don’t respond, we hold the escalatory advantage. Zhang won’t know where, or how hard, we’ll counterpunch. Only that we owe him one.”
“He won’t see it as a sign of weakness? That we took ten thousand casualties, lost six ships? And didn’t hit back?”
Dan twisted in his seat, but didn’t see who’d asked that. Yangerhans grimaced. “Like I said, that’s above even the theater commander’s pay grade. A lot of people don’t believe retaking the western Pacific is worth risking Los Angeles. The pundits thought the elections would give us a clear signal. They didn’t. If we want leadership, we’re not going to see it from Washington.”
The four-star turned brisk. “All right … outlining my intent.” Instead of a new slide, the display went to bluescreen. Yangerhans gazed off above his audience’s heads. “We’re digging in on the line Honshu-Saipan-Guam, the second island chain. We’ve bought, or been granted, a breathing space while Zhang, and his naval staff chief, Admiral Lianfeng, consolidate their gains. Taiwan, Korea, Okinawa, Vietnam—those battles will determine whether this so-called People’s Empire pulses outward again.” Yangerhans eyed Dan. “One of our officers has said, ‘We’ll be back.’ But to do that, we have to keep our logistics open, and concentrate on building up our warfighting capability.
“We face a lot of negatives. Ordnance is short. We have high ship and airframe losses. The enemy’s on a roll. But we can’t simply hold. If we do, that solidifies into the new status quo. Somehow, we have to push back. Even if we come a cropper, it keeps the Allies in the fight.”
Nods from the audience, but also doubtful looks.
Yangerhans nodded, and the next screen showed the South China Sea. “We already have a left hook started. On hold at the moment, but it can resume once we beef up our shipping numbers, and reassure the Australians and Indonesians they can release some of their covering forces. Next, please.”
A kidney-shaped island. “Let’s look more closely at Taiwan. An idea a think tank in DC’s pitching. How solid is the mainland’s grip? Granted, they hold the west coast, the plain, and the northern metropolis—Taipei, and its industrial and residential suburbs. But that’s not the whole island. And everything they fight with has to come across the strait.
“Like every struggle in the Pacific, this will be conducted across vast distances, dependent on access, production, reinforcement rates, and logistics pipelines. The good news is, we can make life hell for the enemy too. We’re redeploying from Europe and the Atlantic. As our sub numbers in the strait and the south ramp up, we’ll be able to reduce his shipping, start starving his deployed forces.
“Meanwhile, significant elements of the Republic of China Army have fallen back into Taiwan’s eastern mountains. The Chingyan Shan is unpopulated, ravined, forested. In other words, ideal for a guerrilla campaign. We’ve established contact with Luong Shucheng, deputy chief of the general staff. As far as we can tell, he’s the senior general still at large. If we can supply him with weapons, ammunition, and food, we can keep Zhang fighting, while we bleed him at the end of his supply lines.
“It might be possible to strand half a million troops on Taiwan. Cut them off, and force them to surrender. An island Stalingrad. If our other allies hold, that may give us a chance at war termination on reasonable terms.”
The group seemed to take a collective inhale. Yangerhans paused as if gauging the reaction, twisted face screwed up as if in pain. “We’ll see if the enemy cooperates … and whether Washington supports us. Any further questions?… That’ll be all for now, then.”
They got to their feet, not with the alacrity of a group of junior officers, but PaCom didn’t wait. Just waited for Niles to lumber up, and gestured him aside.
The meeting broke in an undertone of murmurs. Dan glanced at Niles, but the four-stars had their heads together. He strolled over to Byrne. “Jack. What’re you doing here? I thought you retired.”
“Civilian policy adviser. Triple the salary.”
“Nice. How’s Rosemary? The kids?”
Byrne lowered his voice. “Got ’em out to the country. Blair, I guess she’s—where? Still parked square on the bull’s-eye?”
“Uh, still in DC, if that’s what you mean.”
“Seattle. A good job, microbiology.”
“Good Lord. Seattle? Get her out of there. Or at least, ready to evacuate.”
“Lenson? Lenson?” Niles’s rumble, over the mutter of side conversations.
“His master’s voice,” Byrne cracked.
Dan bit back an angry response. Turning away, he located the CNO in the far corner, by a GCCS terminal. Niles and Yangerhans were contemplating a ground terrain display. The northern border of Vietnam. Yangerhans shook Dan’s hand, grip bony and dry. “Nick here says you’re a fighter.”
“We’ve had our differences,” Niles put in. “And right now, he’s suspended from command pending an investigation. But I kept him in my back pocket, just in case.”
“We need bruisers.” PaCom nodded curtly. “That was a good question about Hormuz, by the way. You’re thinking ahead. Any amphib experience?”
“A PHIBRON staff, in the Med. During the Syrian crisis,” Dan said.
Yangerhans half smiled. Close up he looked even uglier. “And you led the attack in the Taiwan Strait?”
“That was him,” Niles said.
“I’ve been looking for a street fighter. Somebody with balls and brains, both. You can stonewall these investigations, right, Nick?”
“Lenson’s your guy,” Niles rumbled. “Only problem will be keepin’ him on the leash.”
“If you vouch for him, Fireball, that’s good enough for me,” Yangerhans said equably.
With surprising grace for such a huge man, the CNO executed a wheeling movement, opening the distance between him and Yangerhans. A beefy hand plumbed a pocket. Fat fingers tore open a plastic packet. “Sorry Blair couldn’t be here for this,” Niles grunted.
Dan stood bewildered as the two admirals manipulated his lapels, as a camera flashed. Applause battered his ears. He looked down at his palm. His old captain’s eagles glittered there.
“It’s not a permanent commission.” Yangerhans leaned in, still holding the handshake as he grimaced into another camera-flash. “Only Congress can give you that. Which, as I understand it, isn’t going to happen in your case. This is just a fleet-up, understand? A temporary wartime rank.”
Dan touched his new insignia. The hard outline of a five-pointed star. “Um, yessir. I get that. But still. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me. You haven’t heard the job description yet.”
“You’ll love this, Lenson,” Niles said. “Right up your alley.”
Yangerhans said, “I mentioned a pushback. I want you to lead it.”
Dan nodded cautiously.
“It’ll be like sticking your face in a blast furnace. But we can’t sit on our thumbs. Nick and I envisioned TF 76 as a combined U.S.–Japanese force. But Japan’s accepting Zhang’s cease-fire. We’ll plug the Koreans in instead. That’ll give you a robust force level. Concur?”
“I’d be happy to fight alongside Min Jun Jung,” Dan said. “But wouldn’t he be senior to me?”
Niles said, “Why d’you think you got the promotion? Your first task will be to clear the sea lanes between Guam and the fighting on Okinawa. Then, land an element of the Second Marine Division in a location to be designated. Also, be ready to position as a blocking force to protect Guam and the Marianas, if the enemy moves faster than we expect.”
“I personally don’t think Zhang will make the mistake Tojo did, and overextend,” PaCom said somberly. “But he’s kicked our asses so damn hard already, Lianfeng might just persuade him to keep it up. So be wary. They’ve got more surprises for us, I’m sure.”
“Your next question will be about carrier support,” Niles rumbled. “For obvious reasons, there won’t be any. Not after what happened to FDR.”
Yangerhans said, “We’re holding the remaining battle groups out of missile range. Nimitz, Vinson, and Reagan east of Hawaii. Abraham Lincoln, off Australia. The good news: we have more decks on the way. Not attack carriers, but ESBs and containership or tanker hulls with modular decking. And we should have microsatellite recon and at least limited chat up again before too long.”
“Report to USS Hornet, and take command of your force,” Niles concluded. “Your orders will be there this afternoon.”
* * *
WHEN they emerged from the building a siren was screaming. Dan was looking around for a shelter when a passing trooper called, “It’s a drill, sir. Testing a new missile-attack warning.” The wind freshened, blew harder. The palms clashed above their heads, and rain danced across the asphalt, bringing coolness and the smell of the never-far-off sea.
Niles was lumbering toward the Humvee that had brought Dan up the hill. The driver stood holding the door. Dan double-timed after him. “Admiral,” he called.
The massive head half turned. “Yeah—Admiral?”
“I’m not ready.”
“Nobody’s ready for a war, Lenson. I think you know what’s at stake. Otherwise I wouldn’t have pinned those stars on you.”
A second siren joined the first, then a third. They dropped an octave, then rose again, and began to keen in earnest: a spine-chilling, off-key note that sawed at some primitive chord of the back-brain. Niles frowned. “Or did you mean the rank?”
“I didn’t ask for it. I don’t want it.”
“I don’t remember asking for your fucking preferences, Lenson. The Navy needs somebody we can afford to lose. You fit the requirement. Clear?” Niles slammed a beefy hand on the frame of the vehicle. Half-ducked into the door, then paused. “I’m gonna data-dump you everything you need to know about wearing those stars. Listening?”
The sirens rose another octave, screaming like attacking velociraptors, like plunging Stukas. The rain prodded Dan’s face like the icy fingertips of hungry zombies. Humid air was supposed to be easier to breathe, but his airways, scarred from sucking smoke on 9/11, were starting to constrict. He said with difficulty, “I’m all ears.”
Niles squinted toward the mist-glitter of squall-shrouded sea. “Lead your people. They want to see who’s taking them into harm’s way.
“Tell them what you want done, then let ’em do their jobs.”
He paused, scowled. “Stay out of the fucking press! Yeah, I know, you’ve already fucked the dog on that one. But try harder, got it?
“Read Nimitz’s memo to Spruance on calculated risk. Right now we have inferior forces. So we engage only when we can count on the attrition rates being on our side. But if you decide to gamble, don’t go halfway. Shove all your chips in.
“Be ready to pick up that red phone and answer a call from the president.
“And remember, those stars don’t belong to you. Be ready to take ’em off whenever we ask for ’em back.”
Niles eyed him as the sirens quavered, dropped, then lifted again to a skull-splitting scream. Dan fought the impulse to cover his ears. The driver, too, was eyeing him curiously. As if waiting for some response, comment, or reaction. But he didn’t have one. He just felt numb.
Lifting his face to the falling rain, closing his eyes, he concentrated on taking one breath after another.
Copyright © 2017 by David Poyer