Читать онлайн "Hunter Killer: The War with China - The Battle for the Central Pacific"

Автор David Poyer

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... 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.


Camp 576, Western China

The POWs slept in a corrugated iron lean-to built against one wall of the gigantic pit. Behind the hut a cave went back into the rock. The ceiling was just high enough that Teddy could sit upright, but not stand. Dried turds littered the ground between this hut and the next. More hut-caves stretched around the jut of the bluff. All night long lights shone down from the guard towers. Dried grass was the prisoners’ only bedding. Teddy slept nestled with Pritchard and the Vietnamese, and was glad of the warmth.

There were seven POWs in the cave. Teddy Oberg, captured in the raid on Woody Island. “Magpie” Pritchard, the Australian, shot down in the South China Sea. The three Vietnamese, Trinh, Phung, and Vu, whose ship had gone down in the same action. And two U.S. airmen, Fierros and Shepard, shot down over the Taiwan Strait. The space was cramped, but it wasn’t important where you crawled to sleep.

What mattered was more basic.

There was no clock. Only the whistle. No calendar, so Master Chief Teddy Oberg, SEAL Team Eight, U.S. Navy, didn’t know what day it was. Or even what month.

Only that the wind kept getting colder, and now and then crystals drifted down. The air was too dry to snow. But their piss froze in the plastic buckets, and they shivered all day long. The camp’s only concession to winter was to issue a thin flannel-lined jacket and one too-short, weary-looking quilted cotton blanket per man. The prisoners scavenged anything that would burn. Paper, trash, broken shovel handles. One of the Vietnamese stole a discarded tire, but when they burned it in the cave, the smoke drove them out like sprayed hornets.

Lice spread among the prisoners, then fever. The guards sniffled and blew their noses into their fingers, then slapped the POWs. This sickness spread. One by one, prisoners began to vanish.

At night, wolves howled. And now and then machine-gun fire clattered from the towers.

Their Australian messmate raved and shook in a corner. His cough grew worse. Once Teddy caught Pritchard studying what he’d expectorated. Bright blood blossomed in his palm.

One day one of the trusty mechanics left a screwdriver near Teddy’s tray, at the breaker where they processed the ore. When the trusty came back later, Obie said he hadn’t seen it, didn’t know where it was.

Some days there wasn’t any soup, only rice gruel. Then for two days there was no gruel either. After that they were served slops of some grain he didn’t recognize. The hulls were sharp and scratched his throat as he swallowed. He had to force himself to eat it.

He mostly stopped shitting. When he did manage to squeeze a turd out, it was small and hard and licorice-black, with bits of the undigested grain sticking out.

For several days, Phung complained his legs hurt. Soon he screamed softly, talked to himself, and crawled back to the darkest part of the cave, raving and twisting under his blanket. He stank like rotting meat. Vu smuggled back his own corn gruel for him, but Phung wouldn’t touch it.

The next morning Phung was dead. They dragged him outside, and when they came back from work, his body was gone.

* * *

Then one day the truck didn’t show up. Instead one of the guards came hiking along, rifle slung. She was about five feet high, and her uniform might have fitted her father. She looked to be about fifteen.

Over the last month, the military-age guards had disappeared, leaving only kids and old men. Also, Teddy had stopped hearing the distant thuds he’d always figured were dynamite, excavating explosives, down in the pits. “Prisoners, come with me,” she snapped.

They fell in slowly, picking their way down the rockfall to the road like arthritic centenarians. She scolded and pushed them into raggedy columns, wailing insults in a high, comical singsong.

For a moment Teddy felt an urge to take charge, get them formed up, but it faded. He realized then that he’d understood her insults without having to translate in his head. He shuffled into the rearmost rank, set his teeth, and tried to match the pace. They didn’t move fast, only at a sort of starvation shuffle.

His interrogators had torn the ligaments in his foot, stamped on it when they’d realized that it hurt, and laughed when he’d asked for medical attention. He had it strapped up now so it didn’t hang, and had carved a makeshift wooden brace for ankle support. With it cinched tight he could limp, but it hurt like a sonofabitch. From time to time the guard would look back and shout at the laggards, or unsling her rifle and point it at Teddy. Finally, she squeezed the trigger.

But it didn’t fire. Only clicked. The kid laughed.

But Teddy narrowed his eyes. So the guards carried their old AKs with chambers empty. That would give him a second’s grace, if he ever had the chance to grab one.

He might even, still, be stronger than a fifteen-year-old girl. If he could take her by surprise, plunge a stone-whetted screwdriver into her throat…

Hobbling along, he bared rotting gums in a ghastly grin. Once he’d have looked at her and fantasized about sex. Now he wondered how her tits would taste roasted. Probably like fatty ham… The best parts would be thighs and buttocks. But he wouldn’t turn down a tasty morsel of liver, or a kidney.

Teddy pointed up to his breaker as they neared, and she nodded. He fell out and slowly climbed the ladder. At the top, his trusty boss was pacing back and forth, looking worried. When he saw Oberg, old Lew spouted a long explanation, out of which Teddy could get only “bo”—none, nothing. They were missing something, but who knew what.

At last their prime mover started up, chugging black sulfurous smoke. The gears groaned as the roller mills clanked into motion, grinding the last fifteen- or twenty-ton load of ore from the day before. A few minutes later, through a gap in the corrugated iron that sheathed the breaker, he glimpsed a gray tide cresting the rise between him and the pit. This tide lifted erratically, spilling between outcrops and hollows in the ground, but rolling steadily toward him. The resemblance to an adv