The Wén Rui Incident
14:47 March 12, 2034 (GMT+8)
South China Sea
It surprised her still, even after twenty-four years, the way from horizon to horizon the vast expanse of ocean could in an instant turn completely calm, taut as a linen pulled across a table. She imagined that if a single needle were dropped from a height, it would slip through all the fathoms of water to the seabed, where, undisturbed by any current, it would rest on its point. How many times over her career had she stood as she did now, on the bridge of a ship, observing this miracle of stillness? A thousand times? Two thousand? On a recent sleepless night, she had studied her logbooks and totaled up all the days she had spent traversing the deep ocean, out of sight of land. It added up to nearly nine years. Her memory darted back and forth across those long years, to her watch-standing days as an ensign on the wood-slatted decks of a minesweeper with its bronchial diesel engines, to her mid-career hiatus in special warfare spent in the brown waters of the world, to this day, with these three sleek Arleigh Burke–class destroyers under her command cutting a south-by-southwest wake at eighteen knots under a relentless and uncaring sun.
Her small flotilla was twelve nautical miles off Mischief Reef in the long-disputed Spratly Islands on a euphemistically titled freedom of navigation patrol. She hated that term. Like so much in military life it was designed to belie the truth of their mission, which was a provocation, plain and simple. These were indisputably international waters, at least according to established conventions of maritime law, but the People’s Republic of China claimed them as territorial seas. Passing through the much-disputed Spratlys with her flotilla was the legal equivalent of driving donuts into your neighbor’s prized front lawn after he moves his fence a little too far onto your property. And the Chinese had been doing that for decades now, moving the fence a little further, a little further, and a little further still, until they would claim the entire South Pacific.
So . . . time to donut drive their yard.
Maybe we should simply call it that, she thought, the hint of a smirk falling across her carefully curated demeanor. Let’s call it a donut drive instead of a freedom of navigation patrol. At least then my sailors would understand what the hell we’re doing out here.
She glanced behind her, toward the fantail of her flagship, the John Paul Jones. Extending in its wake, arrayed in a line of battle over the flat horizon, were her other two destroyers, the Carl Levin and Chung-Hoon. She was the commodore, in charge of these three warships, as well as another four still back in their home port of San Diego. She stood at the pinnacle of her career, and when she stared off in the direction of her other ships, searching for them in the wake of her flagship, she couldn’t help but see herself out there, as clearly as if she were standing on that tabletop of perfectly calm ocean, appearing and disappearing into the shimmer. Herself as she once was: the youthful Ensign Sarah Hunt. And then herself as she was now: the older, wiser Captain Sarah Hunt, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 21—Solomons Onward, their motto since the Second World War; “Rampant Lions,” the name they gave themselves. On the deck plates of her seven ships she was affectionately known as the “Lion Queen.”
She stood for a while, staring pensively into the ship’s wake, finding and losing an image of herself in the water. She’d been given the news from the medical board yesterday, right before she’d pulled in all lines and sailed out of Yokosuka Naval Station. The envelope was tucked in her pocket. The thought of the paper made her left leg ache, right where the bone had set poorly, the ache followed by a predictable lightning bolt of pins and needles that began at the base of her spine. The old injury had finally caught up with her. The medical board had had its say. This would be the Lion Queen’s last voyage. Hunt couldn’t quite believe it.
The light changed suddenly, almost imperceptibly. Hunt observed an oblong shadow passing across the smooth mantle of the sea, whose surface was now interrupted by a flicker of wind, forming into a ripple. She glanced above her, to where a thin cloud, the only one in the sky, made its transit. Then the cloud vanished, dissolving into mist, as it failed to make passage beyond the relentless late-winter sun. The water grew perfectly still once again.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the hollow clatter of steps quickly and lightly making their way up the ladder behind her. Hunt checked her watch. The ship’s captain, Commander Jane Morris, was, as usual, running behind schedule.
10:51 March 12, 2034 (GMT+4:30)
Strait of Hormuz
Major Chris “Wedge” Mitchell hardly ever felt it. . . .
His father had felt it a bit more than him, like that one time the FLIR on his F/A-18 Hornet had failed and he’d pickle-barreled two GBU-38s “danger close” for a platoon of grunts in Ramadi, using nothing but a handheld GPS and a map. . . .
“Pop,” his grandfather, had felt it more than them both when, for five exhausting days, he’d dropped snake and nape with nothing more than an optical sight on treetop passes during Tet, where he dusted-in so low the flames had blistered the fuselage of his A-4 Skyhawk. . . .
“Pop-Pop,” his great-grandfather, had felt it most of all, patrolling the South Pacific for Japanese Zeros with VMF-214, the famed Black Sheep squadron led by the hard-drinking, harder-fighting five-time Marine Corps ace Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington. . . .
This elusive it, which had held four generations of Mitchells in its thrall, was the sensation of flying by the seat of your pants, on pure instinct alone. (Back when I flew with Pappy, and we’d be on patrol, it wasn’t all whizbang like you have it now. No targeting computers. No autopilot. It was just your skill, your controls, and your luck. We’d mark our gunsights on the canopy with a grease pencil and off we’d fly. And when you flew with Pappy you learned pretty quick to watch your horizon. You’d watch it close, but you’d also watch Pappy. When he’d toss his cigarette out of the cockpit and slam his canopy shut, you knew he meant business and you were about to tangle with a flight of Zeros.)
The last time Wedge had heard that little speech from his great-grandfather, he’d been six years old. The sharp-eyed pilot had only the slightest tremor in his voice despite his ninety-plus years. And now, as the clear sun caught light on his canopy, Wedge could hear the words as distinctly as if his great-grandfather were riding along as his back-seater. Except the F-35E Lightning he flew only had a single seat.
This was but one of the many gripes Wedge had with the fighter he was piloting so close to Iranian airspace that he was literally dancing his starboard wing along the border. Not that the maneuver was hard. In fact, flying with such precision took no skill at all. The flight plan had been inputted into the F-35’s onboard navigation computer. Wedge didn’t have to do a thing. The plane flew itself. He merely watched the controls, admired the view out his canopy, and listened to the ghost of his great-grandfather taunting him from a nonexistent back seat.
Jammed behind his headrest was an auxiliary battery unit whose hum seemed impossibly loud, even over the F-35’s turbofan engine. This battery, about the size of a shoebox, powered the latest upgrade to the fighter’s suite of stealth technologies. Wedge hadn’t been told much about the addition, only that it was some kind of an electromagnetic disrupter. Before he’d been briefed on his mission, he’d caught two civilian Lockheed contractors tampering with his plane belowdecks and had alerted the sergeant at arms, who himself had no record of any civilians on the manifest of the George H. W. Bush. This had resulted in a call to the ship’s captain, who eventually resolved the confusion. Due to the sensitivity of the technology being installed, the presence of these contractors was itself highly classified. Ultimately, it proved a messy way for Wedge to learn about his mission, but aside from that initial hiccup every other part of the flight plan had proceeded smoothly.
Maybe too smoothly. Which was the problem. Wedge was hopelessly bored. He glanced below, to the Strait of Hormuz, that militarized sliver of turquoise that separated the Arabian Peninsula from Persia. He checked his watch, a Breitling chronometer with built-in compass and altimeter his father had worn during strafing runs over Marjah twenty-five years before. He trusted the watch more than his onboard computer. Both said that he was forty-three seconds out from a six-degree eastward course adjustment that would take him into Iranian airspace. At which point—so long as the little humming box behind his head did its job—he would vanish completely.
It would be a neat trick.
It almost seemed like a prank that he’d been entrusted with such a high-tech mission. His buddies in the squadron had always joked that he should’ve been born in an earlier time. That’s how he’d gotten his call sign, “Wedge”: the world’s first and simplest tool.
Time for his six-degree turn.
He switched off the autopilot. He knew there’d be hell to pay for flying throttle and stick, but he’d deal with that when he got back to the Bush.
He wanted to feel it.
If only for a second. And if only for once in his life.
It would be worth the ass-chewing. And so, with a bunch of noise behind his head, he banked into Iranian airspace.
14:58 March 12, 2034 (GMT+8)
South China Sea
“You wanted to see me, Commodore?”
Commander Jane Morris, captain of the John Paul Jones, seemed tired, too tired to apologize for being almost fifteen minutes late to her meeting with Hunt, who understood the strain Morris was under. Hunt understood that strain because she herself had felt it on occasions too countless to number. It was the strain of getting a ship underway. The absolute accountability for nearly four hundred sailors. And the lack of sleep as the captain was summoned again and again to the bridge as the ship maneuvered through the seemingly endless fishing fleets in the South China Sea. The argument could be made that Hunt was under that strain three times over, based on the scope of her command, but both Hunt and Morris knew that the command of a flotilla was command by delegation while the command of a ship was pure command. In the end, you and you alone are responsible for everything your ship does or fails to do. A simple lesson they’d both been taught as midshipmen at Annapolis.
Hunt fished out two cigars from her cargo pocket.
“And what’re those?” asked Morris.
“An apology,” said Hunt. “They’re Cubans. My dad used to buy them from the Marines at Gitmo. It’s not as much fun now that they’re legal, but still . . . they’re pretty good.” Morris was a devout Christian, quietly evangelical, and Hunt hadn’t been sure whether or not she’d partake, so she was pleased when Morris took the cigar and came up alongside her on the bridge wing for a light.
“An apology?” asked Morris. “What for?” She dipped the tip of the cigar into the flame made by Hunt’s Zippo, which was engraved with one of those cigar-chomping, submachine gun–toting bullfrogs commonly tattooed onto the chests and shoulders of Navy SEALs or, in the case of Hunt’s father, etched onto the lighter he’d passed down to his only child.
“I imagine you weren’t thrilled to learn that I’d picked the John Paul Jones for my flagship.” Hunt had lit her cigar as well, and as their ship held its course the smoke was carried off behind them. “I wouldn’t want you to think this choice was a rebuke,” she continued, “particularly as the only other female in command. I wouldn’t want you to think that I was trying to babysit you by situating my flag here.” Hunt instinctively glanced up at the mast, at her commodore’s command pennant.
“Permission to speak freely?”
“C’mon, Jane. Cut the shit. You’re not a plebe. This isn’t Bancroft Hall.”
“Okay, ma’am,” began Morris, “I never thought any of that. Wouldn’t have even occurred to me. You’ve got three good ships with three good crews. You need to put yourself somewhere. Actually, my crew was pretty jazzed to hear that we’d have the Lion Queen herself on board.”
“Could be worse,” said Hunt. “If I were a man, you’d be stuck with the Lion King.”
“And if I were the Lion King,” deadpanned Hunt, “that’d make you Zazu.” Then Hunt smiled, that wide-open smile that had always endeared her to her subordinates.
Which led Morris to say a little more, maybe more than she would’ve in the normal course: “If we were two men, and the Levin and Hoon were skippered by two women, do you think we’d be having this conversation?” Morris allowed the beat of silence between them to serve as the answer.
“You’re right,” said Hunt, taking another pull on her Cuban as she leaned on the deck railing and stared out toward the horizon, across the still impossibly calm ocean.
“How’s your leg holding up?” asked Morris.
Hunt reached down to her thigh. “It’s as good as it’ll ever be,” she said. She didn’t touch the break in her femur, the one she’d suffered a decade before during a training jump gone bad. A faulty parachute had ended her tenure as one of the first women in the SEALs and nearly ended her life. Instead, she fingered the letter from the medical board resting in her pocket.
They’d smoked their short cigars nearly down to the nubs when Morris spotted something on the starboard horizon. “You see that smoke?” she said. The two naval officers pitched their cigars over the side for a clearer view. It was a small ship, steaming slowly or perhaps even drifting. Morris ducked into the bridge and returned to the observation deck with two pairs of binoculars, one for each of them.
They could see it clearly now, a trawler about seventy feet long, built low amidships to recover its fishing nets, with a high-built prow designed to crest storm surge. Smoke billowed from the aft part of the ship, where the navigation bridge was set behind the nets and cranes—great dense, dark clouds of it, interspersed with orange flames. There was a commotion on deck as the crew of maybe a dozen struggled to contain the blaze.
The flotilla had rehearsed what to do in the event they came across a ship in duress. First, they would check to see if other vessels were coming to render assistance. If not, they would amplify any distress signals and facilitate finding help. What they wouldn’t do—or would do only as an absolute last resort—was divert from their own freedom of navigation patrol to provide that assistance themselves.
“Did you catch the ship’s nationality?” asked Hunt. Inwardly, she began running through a decision tree of her options.
Morris said no, there wasn’t a flag flying either fore or aft. Then she stepped back into the bridge and asked the officer of the deck, a beef-fed lieutenant junior grade with a sweep of sandy blond hair, whether or not a distress signal had come in over the last hour.
The officer of the deck reviewed the bridge log, checked with the combat information center—the central nervous system of the ship’s sensors and communications complex a couple of decks below—and concluded that no distress signal had been issued. Before Morris could dispatch such a signal on the trawler’s behalf, Hunt stepped onto the bridge and stopped her.
“We’re diverting to render assistance,” ordered Hunt.
“Diverting?” Morris’s question escaped her reflexively, almost accidentally, as every head on the bridge swiveled toward the commodore, who knew as well as the crew that lingering in these waters dramatically increased the odds of a confrontation with a naval vessel from the People’s Liberation Army. The crew was already at a modified general quarters, well trained and ready, the atmosphere one of grim anticipation.
“We’ve got a ship in duress that’s sailing without a flag and that hasn’t sent out a distress signal,” said Hunt. “Let’s take a closer look, Jane. And let’s go to full general quarters. Something doesn’t add up.”
Crisply, Morris issued those orders to the crew, as if they were the chorus to a song she’d rehearsed to herself for years but up to this moment had never had the opportunity to perform. Sailors sprang into motion on every deck of the vessel, quickly donning flash gear, strapping on gas masks and inflatable life jackets, locking down the warship’s many hatches, spinning up the full combat suite, to include energizing the stealth apparatus that would cloak the ship’s radar and infrared signatures. While the John Paul Jones changed course and closed in on the incapacitated trawler, its sister ships, the Levin and Hoon, remained on course and speed for the freedom of navigation mission. The distance between them and the flagship began to open. Hunt then disappeared back to her stateroom, to where she would send out the encrypted dispatch to Seventh Fleet Headquarters in Yokosuka. Their plans had changed.
Copyright © 2021 by Elliot Ackerman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.