Читать онлайн "Tipping Point: The War With China - The First Salvo"

Автор David Poyer

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... pool of cool shadow. Birds chirped overhead: swallows, nesting in the porticoes, their droppings like white paste on the bright ocher paint. “This’ll probably be my last sea tour. Then, some twilight assignment ashore. Conning a desk.”

“That wouldn’t be so bad, would it?” She sounded hopeful. “And then what? I could put your name out in DC. In certain circles. If you wanted me to.”

He shrugged. They came to stone steps leading downward, and took them. The shadows deepened, and a musty smell rose. “God, that’s better,” she said. “It’s like an oven up there. And all that sparrow shit — yech.”

“I miss you too, Blair. But I seem to be at my best at sea.”

“You mean you like it best at sea.”

This seemed to be one of the less-frequented corridors. The stone was rough ashlar coated with scarred plaster. It didn’t look like the reconstructions. Here and there figures were inscribed, very faintly, on the surface. Maybe this wasn’t the way the group had gone. They walked a few yards, turned right in the gloom. Something skittered away — a small gray-green lizard. She flinched. “You sure this is right?”

“No. Anyway, what’re you getting at?”

“I don’t begrudge you what you want to do, Dan, but we’ve had this conversation before. I thought once you had a plan, for life outside the Navy. They already offered you a medical retirement. Because of your lungs, right?”

“My lungs are fine.” He coughed into a fist, wheezing dramatically.

She rolled her eyes. “Very funny. But I’m not the government-issue service wife you seem to need, Dan.”

“No, you’re much higher powered.”

“Don’t flatter me. I’ve spent a lot of time around generals’ wives. They’re usually the reason their husbands became generals. Shrewd, hardworking women, behind the scenes. We need to think about where we’re going.” She looked away. Then added, in a lower voice, “If we stay together.”

He halted in the near darkness. “What does that mean?”

“Just that I’m coming up on some decision points of my own. If this campaign fails—”

“You’re not going to lose. Not with Checkie pulling for you. And all his wealthy buddies.” He looked back along the corridor, dark behind them, even darker ahead. “Crap… I don’t think this is part of the regular route.”

As they retraced their steps she murmured, “There are more voters in Maryland than my stepdad’s friends. And the other side’s going to put a bargeload of money against us.”

“Uh-huh… Did we go right here, or left? I don’t remember.”

“Right, I think… There’s a banking bill coming up. We’ve got to regulate the financial market more tightly, or there’ll be hell to pay. For the whole economy.”

“But aren’t you taking contributions from the bankers?”

“I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean, Dan. But I don’t like your tone.”

He lifted his head, suddenly realizing that the dust they were walking on was unmarked, save for the curving arabesques of the lizards. “We never came this way. No tracks.”

“We should’ve turned left back there, I guess.”

“Maybe.”

She laughed, a low, throaty sound. “Lost in the Labyrinth. Without even a lousy spool of thread to guide us out.”

“At least we’re together.”

“Ariadne and Theseus?”

He pulled her close. “At least we’re together,” he said again, this time into the familiar scent of her hair, blinking back the sting of incipient tears. Holding her in the musty, close dark, breathing the dust of millennia. What had she meant, if? He couldn’t ask again. She evaded questions she didn’t want to answer. Was she talking about another man? He didn’t think so. But he’d been wrong before, about women. About a lot, actually.

All things came to dust in the end. The fine silt beneath their feet had dreamed too, fought, hated, loved. Again and again, wearing different faces.

Someone was calling, from above. The guide sounded worried. “We’re down here,” Dan shouted up through a gap in the stone. And shortly thereafter they were trudging up time-hollowed stone steps, back into the blazing sun.

* * *

The ship lay at the end of a finger pier, the green and buff mountains rising beyond. It reared above them like a falling tower as Dan pulled into the space with the welded steel sign that read COMMANDING OFFICER USS SAVO ISLAND.

When he turned off the engine he could hear the steady roar of blowers and machinery, could smell the mingled scents of turbine generator exhaust and fuel and fresh paint and overcooked food. Below him seamen on a float wielded rollers on long poles. Fresh haze gray gleamed on the sheer. As he held the door for Blair, a welding arc sputtered halfway up the overlofty, top-heavy-looking superstructure. Flat squarish panels with truncated corners, not quite octagons, were set like breast badges just below the bridge.

The panels were SPY-1 antenna arrays. The Ticonderogas had been designed around them, mating a Spruance-class hull and propulsion to the most powerful radars ever put to sea. Within a radius of three hundred miles, an Aegis cruiser could detect and track over a hundred possible targets simultaneously, and reach out with scores of missiles to destroy enemy aircraft threatening the massive carriers that centerpieced U.S. or NATO battle groups.

The bells announcing his arrival bonged out. “Savo Island, arriving,” the 1MC said, the topside loudspeakers strident and metallic. The absentee pennant floated down.

The autumn before, Dan had stood by the window of the vice CNO’s temporary office, looking out toward the Pentagon. He and Niles had staggered out together on 9/11, through burning fuel and collapsing ceilings, over torn-apart bodies.

“So, Lenson,” Admiral Niles had rumbled, slapping his desk, “I keep my promises. Still want a ship?”

“Yes sir,” he’d murmured. Someone had engineered his promotion, even after he’d been officially passed over. It wasn’t supposed to happen, but there’d been “irregularities.”

“You made captain. Sure you don’t want to cash in your chips, go make some real money?”

He didn’t answer, and Niles had slammed the desk again. “You might actually be a good fit… But you won’t have long. She’s out there on a national-level mission. If this ship doesn’t turn around, and I mean on a dime, I’ve got another O-6 with his bags packed. And tread light this time, Lenson. No more Gaddises. No more Horns.”

He winced now, inwardly, as he saluted the flag, then turned to face his officer of the deck. Blair stood at attention, hand over her heart. A small woman with a pointed face, chunky hips under dark blue shipboard coveralls, and blond hair smoothed back under her fore-and-aft cap stepped out onto the main deck and saluted. Staurulakis had been fleeted up from operations officer at Dan’s recommendation when the previous exec had self-destructed. “Good evening, Captain. Mrs. Lenson. Hope you had a good trip.”

“You remember Cheryl Staurulakis, Blair. Acting exec.”

The two women shook hands. “Nice to see you again, Cheryl. But it’s Ms. Titus, not Mrs. Lenson.”

“Sorry, ma’am.” Staurulakis said to Dan, “We’re about to begin reloading the after magazine, Captain.”

“What’s going in first?”

“I asked if they could load the 4As first.”

The Standard Block 4As were new, still-experimental antimissile rounds. The autumn before, just before this deployment, Savo Island had gone from a baseline Aegis 7 to a new mission: theater ballistic missile defense. The Navy’s go-to antiaircraft missile had been grown with a higher-energy booster and a lighter proximity-kill warhead to gain the range and altitude needed to intercept a reentry body. This was its first deployment, and most of the experts said it was too early. Not only that, but when she was operating in antimissile mode, the ship was practically blind to other threats. He nodded. “And they said?”

“They wanted to load in a specified order given the cell layout. Said it might not get the 4As in first, but it’d be faster overall. I gave them the okay.”

“All right, we’ll let that stand.” He checked the TAG Heuer Blair had given him as a wedding gift. “We set up for dinner? Got the word, the commodore’ll be here?”

“Yessir, they’re setting up in the unit commander’s cabin.”

“That’s the suite?” Blair asked.

Staurulakis nodded. Dan told her, “Make sure the bed gets made up. The commodore will probably stay over.”

* * *

As dusk fell the First Division rigged floodlights and the Tiger Team worked on. After he got Blair settled with a cup of coffee and the CNN feed in his in-port cabin, and scanned his e-mail, he went aft to check on the rearming.

The vertical launch system magazines had no launcher. Or, rather, each cell was its own, with the missile boosting vertically until it cleared the ship, then arching over to its departure azimuth. The upside was that a launcher casualty didn’t put you out of business at a ticklish time. The downside was that rearming was slower than with the older systems, and required a crane, which meant you couldn’t rearm at sea. Each of the square gray stenciled canisters that housed the missiles had to be poised above its cell, cables connected, connections tested, then lowered, very carefully, so as not to bend the loading rails.

He crossed the afterdeck to the open module. The coveralled, hard-hatted civilian technicians nodded. He waved back and looked down as gulls circled, crying out in the failing light. Forty feet, two levels down, nearly to the bilge. A narrow catwalk halfway down gave the gunn