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David Poyer

Tipping Point: The War With China — The First Salvo

All nations want peace; but they want a peace that suits them.




Even the hills looked ancient. They stretched away mile after mile, bright green under the spring sky, patched with bleached rock where the spare soil had worn away. Over centuries, no, millennia…

Dan Lenson glanced at his wife. Her head was turned away, blond hair flickering in the warm wind from the open passenger-side window. The breeze smelled of sage, rosemary, cypress, a warm mingled scent blowing off the myrtle-covered hills. Blair had flown in the day before, and he’d left his executive officer in charge while he took two days’ leave.

“My wife, the congresswoman,” he murmured.

She pressed a finger to his lips. “Don’t jinx me, okay? It’s by no means a shoo-in.”

The rented BMW was headed south, along a winding two-lane coast road lined with rustling olive groves, each a slightly different blue or green. Violet and cream flowers bloomed along the verge, and the blue Mediterranean murmured on their left. No one seemed to build near the water here. Maybe, Dan thought, they remembered ancient disasters. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis… classical civilization had risen atop a tectonic fault line.

They’d dined the evening before at a restaurant atop one of those myrtle-choked hills. Cheese pies, Cretan rice, slow-cooked wild hare with artichoke hearts, followed with phyllo-dough pastries and candied fruit. He’d told her how the English word candy had come from a town near where they were going: ancient Candia. And she’d told him what she was doing at SAIC, where a shadow cabinet convened when her party was out of national office. She’d tried the raki, and sputtered it out, to the amusement of the other diners.

They’d stayed overnight in Mperetiana, at a hotel overlooking the sea. The bay was so narrow he could look across to the gray speck that was USS Savo Island, moored at the long pier at the naval base. A crane barge lay alongside. It had extracted the remaining missiles aft, both the live ones left from the brief but fierce engagement with an Iranian task force the month before, and the dud rounds damaged in an electrical fire before that. Now the whole magazine, wiring and controls, was being refurbished by a Tiger Team from Norfolk.

But for a few hours, he’d almost forgotten his responsibilities. Renewed passion and ripped-off clothes, along with strange little arguments, quickly extinguished flares of temper. But just as quickly, recurring.

They’d coupled again hungrily this morning, followed by an hour of sleeping in. Showered, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. Then back on the road, toward Heraklion, on the island’s northern coast. He slouched in his seat, one hand on the wheel, the other on her shoulder. Now and then his skin stung, whipped by strands of her blowing hair.

“Knossos. One kilometer,” she said, folding the tourist map and tucking it back into a worn cordovan briefcase. “So that was the right place to turn.”

“You nailed it. Again.”

She made a face. “Oh, shut up. That must be it, on that hill. My God… it’s huge.

The asphalted lot they pulled into was nearly empty; only a few dozen cars. When they got out the air reverberated. Silent, except for the wind, and the chirrup of insects.

“I used to read about this place.” She gazed up at the columns. “When I was a kid.”

“We must’ve read the same books.” He stretched the kinks out, examining the pillars. Bright red and blue, ocher and yellow, they tapered toward their bases, inflated-looking pillows of stone. Behind them the famous mural of the bull-leapers was just visible. “Looks like we’d better take some water.”

Plastic half-liters tucked into their pockets, they joined a tour, and trailed the group up into the ruins. He saw now why so many of the reconstructions were porticoes, elevated roofs; they provided shade from that relentless sun. Halted inside, they listened to a long explanation of how the English archaeologist Arthur Evans had excavated what he interpreted as the ancient palace of the shadowy bull-king Minos. And then, later, decided to “reconstruct” it in reinforced concrete, with frescoes by modernist artists. The whole talk came first in Greek, then in French, and last in English. Then they moved on to the next stop, where the whole process was repeated.

Half an hour into the tour, he turned to see Blair lagging back. “We’re going to lose the group,” he called.

“Let them go on ahead. I want to say something,” she murmured. “I didn’t want to bring this up last night, and spoil our… reunion. But we need to talk.”

“About what?”

“About the ruckus you’ve stirred up.”

He blinked into the burning sun. The concrete trapped the heat radiating off the walls. Sweat trickled down his face. “What ruckus?”

“Your shooting down that Israeli missile. I’ve had to field questions about it. So far, I’ve managed to put them off. But at some point, I’m going to have to take a position.”

Dan cleared his throat. He’d thought they were going to enjoy the day. See the sights. “Can’t you just hand them off to the Navy? Say it’s a military question?”

“This isn’t just a military issue anymore. Anything that has to do with supporting Israel is political, Dan. Highly. And it’s getting even bigger than that. Have you heard about the Lenson Doctrine?”

He frowned. “The what?”

“That’s what Cal Thomas — that newspaper columnist — what he called it. In a very hostile piece, by the way. The ‘Lenson Doctrine’: If we have the capability to intercept a ballistic missile strike, at least one targeted against a civilian population, we have the moral obligation to do so. No matter whom the strike’s against.”

Dan said slowly, “I wasn’t making policy; it was what my orders said. Priority three: offensive missiles targeted against civilian populations.”

“That was NCA draft guidance, Dan. And it certainly didn’t mean for you to intercept counterstrikes by our own allies.”

“It didn’t mention any exceptions. And I’d already knocked down an Iraqi missile.”

“Uh-huh. Absolutely literal, like always… Is that the Academy mind-set? Or your own patented Dan Lenson blinders?”

“Sounds like a loaded question to me.”

She blew out and glanced away. “It’s getting hot… want some water?”

“Not yet.”

“Anyway, whether you intended it or not, that’s how your action’s being interpreted in some quarters. And I have to say, knowing the way you operate, it wouldn’t be out of character.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Your fucking idealism, or naivete, or whatever it is, gets in the way of your common sense.”

“Now you sound like Nick Niles. But don’t we oppose the use of weapons of mass destruction? Isn’t that what Iraq was all about — toppling Saddam because he had that capability? And he didn’t actually even use them. Except on his own people.”

“You forget the Iran-Iraq war. He used gas then, too.”

Dan shrugged. Ahead, the group had stopped before a fresco of a young man against a background of stylized lilies. The somniferous drone of the guide’s canned lecture went on and on, like a fat fly’s buzzing. First Greek, then French… Dan couldn’t keep the irritation out of his voice. It was easy for pundits — or wives — to second-guess a decision he’d had thirty seconds to make. And he was still sure, or at least pretty sure, it had been the right call. “Look, let’s discuss this later, all right? I’m sorry you’re taking heat. Or that it’s hurting you politically. If it is. But my decisions have nothing to do with you. If I screwed up, if they’ve lost confidence, the Navy will relieve me. If not, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

“Nothing to worry about.” She looked away, pretending, he guessed, to examine the fresco. “Does that include Lieutenant Singer?”

“Singer… You mean Lieutenant Singhe? Amy? What about her?”

“The way she was looking at you. Aboard your ship. You don’t find her attractive?”

“She’s part of my wardroom, Blair. I don’t get paid to rank the attractiveness of my junior officers.” But even to his own ears, that sounded evasive. And Singhe was more than attractive; more like some Hindu goddess of erotic desire, in tight-fitting blue coveralls that outlined every curve… Damn it. “Anyway, I’m married.”

“Nice compliment, Dan. Meaning that if you weren’t…?”

“It is a compliment. Or didn’t last night convince you?”

She took his arm, but still didn’t meet his gaze. “It was nice. So was this morning. But we don’t see each other very often. I knew you’d be gone a lot, but I didn’t realize exactly how long. Or how much I’d miss you. The Navy seems to be eating you alive. Even when you’re around, you’re not here. Like last night—”

He smiled. “You seemed to like it.”

“I don’t mean that.” She punched his arm with a sharp knuckle. “I mean at dinner. You hardly looked at me. You just stared across the water, toward your ship.”

He sighed. The group was out of sight. He wasn’t sure where it had gone. The most likely way seemed to be down a long corridor. He took her arm, and they strolled toward a ...