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

Автор David Poyer

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... >Shulman said, “It would not be appropriate, at this stage, for us to take any position on your actions. But you might be interested to know you’ve been set up for a murder board before the hearing.”

Dan nodded slowly. “Murder boards” were combination strategy sessions and third-degree grillings designed to prepare a witness to testify. He’d sat in on a few, when he’d been with Joint Cruise Missiles. Getting Admiral Willis and Niles, a rear admiral back then, ready to testify before the Procurement and Military Nuclear Systems Subcommittee about the high failure rate of the Tomahawk program and whether it should be terminated. The procedure had spread to preparing candidates for high office; Blair had had a mini — murder board before being appointed to DoD. “That sounds like a vote of support.”

“If you want to interpret it that way. Here’s the office address. A retired Marine general who specializes in prepping people for congressional hearings. Be there at 0700 Tuesday. On Wednesday afternoon, you testify.”

“I get all Tuesday night off, huh?”

“And Wednesday morning.” Schulman had such a deadpan delivery that Dan almost missed his wink. “I’ll be there with you.”

“Me too,” said Rongstad. “Don’t have to be, but I will.”

“I appreciate that.” Having other uniforms flanking him would make him less of an individual target, would make it more a case of putting the Navy on trial, rather than painting him as an individual rogue. Which, God knew, anybody who wanted to could dig up more than enough evidence for. “Seriously. And, can I ask: this general’s retired? Who’s picking up the tab? For the prep session?”

“The general’s donating his time,” the admiral said. “I didn’t say this, but apparently he’s a friend of your wife.”

“Fantastic,” Dan said. Torn between relief and resentment. If it wasn’t Niles, it was Blair. Didn’t anyone think he could fight his own battles?

“We’re not against you,” Shulman murmured. “But there’ll be some heat generated over this. If we have to sacrifice a burnt offering, to keep the mission…”

”Say no more.” Dan eyed the frosted buns again, and at last gave in. Pineapple. Not bad. “I’ve had a good career. If I have to go out because I saved some civilians, I have no heartburn over that.”

“Let’s hope it won’t come to that.” The admiral coughed into his fist, and stood.

Dan did too, a little confused. “We done, sir?”

“I think we are. Good luck. Oh, and one more thing.” Rongstad reached inside his double-breasted blouse and extended a white envelope. “This request came in. The SecNav was going to preside, but he’s going to China as part of a high-level party. The family had asked for you, but you were deployed. It’s short notice, but we can provide transportation and a draft speech.”

Dan nodded slowly, looking at the schedule of events. “‘Naming Ceremony, USS Cobie Kasson.’ I’d be… deeply honored to preside.”

* * *

Bright and fair, the day was warm as they strolled down Pier 7, Destroyer-Submarine Piers, Norfolk Operating Base, between towering gray ships toward the last one, outboard. An Arleigh Burke — class destroyer, she lay lower and wider than Savo Island. A band was playing “Anchors Aweigh.” Dan was in dress whites, white cap cover, white shoes, the uniform that made Navymen look like ice cream salesmen. Beside him, Blair strode along in low heels and a cotton summer dress, elegant but self-contained. She’d seemed torn about today, but had at last said yes, she would accompany him.

The previous evening had not been pleasant. A continuing cold misunderstanding that left them injuring each other with small jabs. Overcome by remorse, hoping for some reconciliation, even if only physical, he’d reached for her in bed, but she’d pushed his arm away.

An official car had picked them up at dawn, complete with a lieutenant commander public affairs type as escort. It had whisked them to the helo pad at the Pentagon, and forty minutes later he was looking down at the silvery glow of Willoughby Bay.

Horn still lay across the Elizabeth River, surrounded by barbed wire. She didn’t exactly glow in the dark, but remaining aboard her for any length of time still fogged radioactivity badges. He’d written Kasson up for the Congressional, but it had been downgraded to the Navy Cross.

The ship-naming process was hermetic and unfathomable, run not out of the CNO’s office but the SecNav’s. Once it had been straightforward — submarines named for fish, cruisers for cities, battleships for states. Now submarines were named for almost anything — states, presidents, admirals, politicians who gave the Navy money. The surface force, though, had maintained its standards. With one or two exceptions, destroyers and frigates were still named after Navy and Marine heroes. And in this case, one who’d served under him. Not that he’d known her well, but she’d been in his crew.

Their escort introduced him to the rest of the official party, gathering under a blue awning a few yards from the raised platform where the ceremony would take place. Standing apart were two short women with a family resemblance. After a second, he recalled why they looked familiar, though he’d never met them before.

“You must be Captain Lenson.” The sixtyish woman had a deep Louisiana accent. A very thin teenager stood beside her, hugging herself. Both looked awed and out of place; the younger woman would not meet Dan’s eyes. “We’re Cobie’s family.”

“Of course, I recognized you right away. Mrs. Kasson. And this must be Kaitlyn? Petty Officer Kasson’s — Cobie’s daughter?” They shook hands, the girl’s eyes still sliding away from his, her hand limp. “This is my wife, Blair Titus. Your mother was a real hero. Saved the ship, and the lives of the crew. You can be proud of her.”

“I barely remember her,” Kaitlyn said, voice almost lost in the renewed blast from the band, which had struck up “Under the Double Eagle.” A tune he considered a waste of good notes.

Dan said, “She wasn’t a standout at first. But when the pressure was on, we saw what she was made of.” He was reluctant to admit he barely remembered her. She’d been lower-ranking enlisted, in Engineering, a deckplate snipe; he’d see her only during inspections, or when something went wrong and had to be repaired. Not the best opportunity for socializing.

“Captain? I can introduce you to the rest of the guests—”

“Yes. I’m sorry, we’ll talk again.” He bowed, and Blair took his arm; they moved on.

“They don’t look like much,” she murmured.

“Who doesn’t?”

“The mother. The daughter. Surprising.”

“What’s surprising? They’re just regular folks—”

“I mean, that they managed to get the ship named after their relative. That takes a lot of grassroots organizing. A lot of smarts, behind the scenes… Aha.”

“Aha what?”

“Vacherie La Blanc. Over there. Their congressman. Third District. Be sure to make a good impression, Dan. He’s going to be at your hearing next week.”

Their escort led them on, to introduce them to Admiral Zembiec, COMSURFLANT; USS Kasson’s first commanding officer; the squadron commander; a shipyard representative from Bath; the rest of the official guests. Everyone seemed to know who he was. He shook hands, made small talk. La Blanc was short, friendly, almost obsequious, but he and the congressman didn’t get to exchange more than a couple of words.

Dan was nervous about his speech. They’d given him a draft, but it was so full of clichés and inaccuracies, especially about Horn’s final hours, that he’d finally cut out everything except the intro and summary and rewritten the middle himself. Blair had looked it over, and suggested some grace notes. Cut a couple passages, where he’d let himself go. This wasn’t the venue. Or the time. “You can save it for your retirement speech,” she’d said.

* * *

When he stepped before the podium the faces turned up to him, expectant, open. A moment of breathlessness. He gripped the wooden sides and tried again.

“Admiral, Congressman La Blanc, distinguished guests… the Kasson family… the Honorable Blair Titus… Ladies and gentlemen.

“It gives me great pleasure to be here on this occasion: the accession to the fleet of a new warship, named after a hero I personally had the privilege to lead. Naming this ship after her is an honor to all the enlisted men and women who have made the Navy and Marine Corps what it is today: not only the largest, and the most powerful, but the most respected armed force in the world.

“You will hear a great deal today about the capabilities, armaments, and sensors of this new warship, built to survive and prevail in a hostile electronic environment. The Navy considers these new destroyers its most capable surface combatants. They incorporate advanced geometries and construction materials, to reduce the likelihood of enemy targeting. This tough, survivable ship will venture into high-threat areas to conduct antiair, antisubmarine, antisurface, and inland strike operations. Its designers and builders deserve the highest praise.

“But I will not dwell on that. Instead, I want to talk about the woman this ship is to be named after: Engineman Gas Turbine Mechanic Third Class Cobie Kasson.

“You will hear the official citation which awarded the Navy Cross to Petty Officer Kasson read later in this ceremony. To put it in perspective, she and I — we — were deployed off the coast of Egypt to intercept a suspicious trawler. Unknown to anyone, its hull was packed with explosives. When it detonated close aboard, the shock wa