The following is an excerpt from The Cruiser by David Poyer and is republished with permission. Copyright © 2014 by David Poyer. All rights reserved.
By David Poyer
The bonging went on and on, echoing the length of the ship. The boatswain leaned to the 1MC. “Now general quarters, general quarters, all hands man your battle stations. General quarters traffic route, up and forward to starboard; aft and down to port. Set material condition Zebra throughout the ship. Now general quarters!”
The pilothouse burst into a frenzied bustle. Watchstanders grabbed for GQ gear, bowing to tuck and tape the cuffs of coveralls into socks. They pulled heavy padded flash gear, hoods and gloves—standard issue since USS Horn’s nuclear destruction not far from these waters—on over the coveralls, leaving only eyes peering out. They strapped gas masks rigged for quick donning on their thighs. Petty officers broke out sound-powered phones, in case comms went down. They passed out the same heavy steel helmets the Navy had issued in World War II, and banged open lockers of flotation devices and emergency breathing gear.
Dan was out on the wing, polishing his binoculars with lens paper, when the officer of the deck brought him out his helmet. The letters CO were stenciled in red on the front. He settled its weight on the crown of his skull. The wind gusted cold. Dawn was just breaking, a dull illumination that barely limned a charcoaled horizon, hardly distinguished sea from clouded sky. The stern light of a cargo ship glowed like a distant comet. Savo Island rolled slightly, charging through wind-ruffled onyx swells at twelve knots. Not all that fast, but he had to balance a desire not to present a stationary target with the need to conserve fuel.
Yeah, fuel. He frowned. Need to get with Bart Danenhower about that. He had no idea how long they’d be out here, and the Navy might not want to risk a tanker close inshore during a hot war.
Which might start any day. Any hour.
“Time: plus one minute,” the 1MC announced.
So he’d decided on an old-fashioned general quarters drill. From the expressions around him, especially on the faces of the younger troops, they hadn’t heard that pulse-pounding gong often since the last week of boot camp. But if Savo was as vulnerable as he feared, every man and woman aboard had to be ready to survive blast, flooding, fragments, and fire. As he glanced in at them through the window, for just a fraction of a second memory intruded.
He’d been looking away when it had happened. Fortunately. But even looking away, everything around him—sea, steel, cloth—had turned the brightness of the noon sun. The starboard lookout had screamed, dropping his binoculars, clutching his eyes. But the dreadful, burning light had gone on and on, as if someone had opened the scuttle to Hell.
Dan hadn’t actually thought about what was happening. Drill alone had driven him across the bridge, slamming into the chart table, to shove the quartermaster aside and shout into the mike, “Nuclear detonation, brace for shock!”
The deck had jolted upward as he’d crashed down onto it, whiplashing him back up into the air. Dust and paint chips had leaped out of cable runs to fog the pilothouse. An instant later the windows had come in on them with a crack like lightning tearing an oak apart. Only the sound had gone on, and on…
He came back now to find himself staring white-eyed into his own reflection, kneading his neck. The old fracture. Then, as he blinked, his gaze suddenly plunged through, past the wing window he was looking into, to meet the puzzled eyes of a slight young seaman manning the remote operating console for the port 25mm. The squished-together, almost toothless-looking old man’s face was familiar.
Downie. “The Troll.” The goofball who’d left his pistol unattended on the quarterdeck just long enough for it to be stolen. The compartment cleaner who’d discovered a corpse cold in its bunk. They stared at each other for what seemed like a long time. Then Downie half-grinned, dropped his gaze, and squatted to adjust his gas mask carrier.
Almarshadi bustled up in flash gear and flotation vest, carrying a rolled-up sheaf of bond. Dan beckoned him closer. Trying to control suddenly ragged breathing, a racing heart, reaching for the cool impassivity everyone expected of him. Trying to forget Horn, and what had happened to all too many of her crew.
Under his command.
“Fahad, good morning. Fine Navy day, right?”
The exec shivered. He cast a doubtful eye at the clouds. “Absolutely, Captain. Spectacular Navy day.”
“Built the training package?”
“Bart and I got it written up last night.”
“Good. Couple of issues on the bridge team. I want protective goggles for them too. Have them wrap a pair in the flash gear hood so they get them on at the same time as their hoods. Second, aren’t they supposed to have flak jackets? Do we have those?”
“Hermelinda might have goggles in stock. And we…not flak jackets…we have, um, ballistic protection gear for the boarding party.”
“Move it up here. We won’t be doing any opposed boarding. I’d rather have the bridge team ready to keep fighting if we take a fragmentation hit.”
“Time: plus two minutes.”
The OOD leaned out. “Captain, XO: General quarters set. All stations report manned and ready. Time, two minutes and fifteen seconds.”
Dan gave Almarshadi the gimlet eye. With a ready time like that, someone had leaked the drill. He got a shamefaced grin back. “All right,” he told the OOD. “Have the bo’s’un pass, ‘Work center supervisor now carry out EBD and emergency egress drills.’” Almarshadi waited, tapping the rolled-up papers against his thigh. Dan looked aft, then up, giving the crew a few more minutes to get set. But something was missing. After a moment he realized what. “Get our colors up!” he yelled into the pilothouse, and added, to Almarshadi, “And leave them up, as long as we’re on station out here.”
“Aye sir. Goggles, ballistic vests, battle colors.”
A quartermaster—there were no signalmen anymore—double-timed to the flag shack and began breaking out the oversized Stars and Stripes. When it was snapping free against the gray sky, huge and bright and crackling in the cold wind, he looked up for a long time. Filling his sight with red and blue and white like some essential nutrient he’d been short on for too long.
Reynolds Ryan was gone. Van Zandt was gone. Horn was still radioactive, but he’d brought her back. Less than half as many ships out here now as when he’d stepped aboard his first destroyer so many years before. But the U.S. Navy was still on station.
Still on station…
He took a deep breath, wondering why he was suddenly fighting tears. Fuck. Fuck! What would happen to these kids? Was Savo doomed too? He’d just left the Navy command center when Flight 77 had punched through the limestone skin of the Pentagon, blasting the space and everyone in it with fuel-flame and razor-sharp metal, turning everything in the C ring into fire and collapsing concrete. Niles, and the others who’d called him a Jonah, a curse, a doom—were they right?
No. They couldn’t be. He’d never have taken this command if he’d really believed that.
So why was the imp of self-doubt still whispering in his ear that he wasn’t good enough, wasn’t competent enough? That when the chips were down, he’d lack what it took.
He’d always come through before, true. Oh, sure, the imp sneered. But one of these days…
A clearing of the throat beside him. Dan looked down from the streaming colors to find the XO regarding him. He dragged himself back into the present, into the bite of a frigid wind. And told Almarshadi, “Okay, that was your drill schedule there? No, I’m sure it’s fine. Take charge, Fahad. Go ahead and take charge.”
David Poyer’s sea career included service in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Arctic, Caribbean, and Pacific. He’s the author of nearly fifty novels and works of nonfiction, including the Dan Lenson War with China series: Tipping Point, Onslaught, Hunter Killer, Deep War, and Overthrow. His next book, Violent Peace, will be published this December. Poyer’s work has been required reading in the Literature of the Sea course at the U.S. Naval Academy, along with that of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville. He lives on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (July 23, 2019) The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60) transits the Atlantic Ocean July 23, 2019.(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael H. Lehman/Released)