The Cruiser: A Dan Lenson Novel (Dan Lenson Novels)

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9781250020581: The Cruiser: A Dan Lenson Novel (Dan Lenson Novels)

Newly-promoted to Captain, Dan Lenson's first glimpse of his command is of a ship literally high and dry. The USS Savo Island, which carries a classified, never-before-deployed missile defense system, has run aground on an exposed sandbar off Naples. Captain Lenson has to relieve the ship's disgraced skipper and deploy on a secret mission―Operation Stellar Shield―which will take his ship and crew into the dangerous waters bordering the Middle East.

As a climate of war builds between Israel and Iraq, with threats of nuclear and chemical weapons, Dan has to rally Savo Island's demoralized crew, confront a mysterious death on board ship, while learning to operate a complex missile system that has not been battle tested. But when the conflict reaches a climax, Dan is forced to make a decision that may cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives―or may save them, but at the cost of his ship and his career.

Filled with dramatic sea adventure, authentic weapons and technology, and distinguished by Poyer's deep understanding of duty and the moral choices made in combat, The Cruiser is the fourteenth novel to feature Dan Lenson in military service that carries him throughout the world.

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About the Author:

DAVID POYER's naval career included service in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Arctic, Caribbean, the Middle East, and Pacific. The Cruiser is the fourteenth in his continuing Dan Lenson series. He's also written sailing, diving, and nautical history articles for Chesapeake Bay, Southern Boating, Shipmate, Tidewater Virginian, and other periodicals. His work has been required reading in the Literature of the Sea course at the U.S. Naval Academy. Previous novels in the Dan Lenson series include The Towers, The Crisis, and The Weapon. He lives on the Eastern Shore of Virginia with his wife and daughter, with whom he explores the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coast in their sloop, Water Spirit.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

Italy

 

THEY’D been in the air for two hours from Spain when the copilot made her way toward him, bracing a hand on the back of each seat. “Coming up on Naples, Captain,” she murmured over the hum of the engines. As the wing of the vice CNO’s private jet lifted, she bent over him to point outside, giving a flash of cleavage at the neckline of her flight suit. “There’s Vesuvius, sir. Harbor’s coming up on your right.”

The immense double mounds of the volcano barricaded the sky. Below stretched miles of roofs, streets, apartments, their windows flashing flame-orange in the winter sun. The air was hazy with mist, or maybe smoke. What must it be like, living in the shadow of a volcano? The very volcano—if he remembered correctly—where Hephaestus had forged the weapons of Mars, the god of war.

Then a great glittering rose-silver arc rolled up into view, and Dan leaned into the seat belt, shading his eyes. The pilot kept the wing depressed, as if to give his only passenger the opportunity for a long look down.

Captain Daniel Valentine Lenson, U.S. Navy, traced the tracks and roads that edged the sweeping concavity of sea that was the Bay of Naples; the inner harbor; the stone moles, spidery thin and knobbed as a movie alien’s fingers. Cruise ships lay alongside the Mussolini-era passenger terminal, deck on deck shining in the sun like white steel wedding cakes.

A cliff of masonry, the fortification that had guarded the city in days past, frowned half a mile south of the inner harbor. Two hundred yards short of it lay the gray wedge of a Ticonderoga-class cruiser. A tug was nudging a barge alongside; smaller craft sketched foamy orbits around it. Those would be force protection, small boats guarding the helpless giant.

“Can you see it?” The copilot, leaning even farther over him. Blond hair swung forward, wafting a perfume he hadn’t caught before. “We can notify Traffic Control and circle. Get you a better look.”

“No, thanks.” One glimpse had seared it into his retinas. The orange of spill-containment booms. The blues and greens that paled abruptly to shoal water a third of the way back from the stem. USS Savo Island was hard aground. That much was clear, even from five thousand feet.

“We’ll be wheels down in ten, then. Is your seat belt secure? Just let me check—”

“I’ll snug it up, thanks.” Dan scratched his chin. He wore two rings: the heavy gold Annapolis one, and the thinner, traditional Navy wedding band, with stars and anchors. Glancing at his hand, she opened her mouth, as if about to say something. Then seemed to think better of it, and headed back to the cockpit. Still, he could appreciate the curve of her receding ass, firmly outlined by the tight-fitting flight suit.

The turbines whined up, then down, and dust floated and sparkled in the sunlight slanting through the window. No wonder Admiral Barry “Nick” Niles had diverted his personal aircraft to get a newly promoted surface line captain here as quickly as possible. An Aegis cruiser. The envy of other navies worldwide. Yet now she lay helpless on a shoal everyone knew was there, that was plainly shown on charts and even marked with a warning buoy.

How could it have happened?

And what was he going to do about it?

*   *   *

HE descended the deplaning ladder feeling like a member of Congress, carrying his briefcase and with his notebook computer slung over the other shoulder. Into hot exhaust and chilly, smoke-smelling wind. Down the line, airliners nuzzled a glass-walled commercial terminal. The U.S. Naval Support Activity, Capodichino, shared the runway with Naples International Airport.

A tall, eager lieutenant in khakis. “Captain Lenson? Lieutenant Mills.… Matt. It’s a real honor.”

He returned the salute awkwardly, and the junior officer relieved him of the computer. “I need to see Commodore Roald as soon as possible,” Dan told him.

Mills glanced up from Dan’s ribbons. He swallowed, looking intimidated.

“They don’t make me any different from anyone else, Lieutenant. The commodore?”

A fresh blast of exhaust swept over them. Turning away, Mills yelled, “Right, sir. She, uh, told me she didn’t need you until tomorrow, sir.”

“My orders were to report to her.”

“It’s a legal issue, sir. She can’t meet with the relieving commanding officer until the decision’s made that the outgoing CO is actually outgoing. As I understand it.”

That made sense. Niles had insisted that he see Roald the instant he arrived. But Nick Niles wasn’t here. Mills was ushering him into a small room with a plush brown suede sofa, a low table, and a modernistic, chromed Italian coffeemaker. “This is our distinguished-visitor lounge, sir. The head’s through there. We’ll get your luggage and bring your sedan around.”

“I may not need a car. Where’s the court being held?”

“Court of inquiry’s in Admin Two. That’s further down the Spina. Or I can just take you to your quarters.”

Dan sank into the sofa. “So. Matt, is it? What do you do for Commodore Roald?”

“Actually, I’m the Aegis go-to guy on the DesRon staff. Did my previous tour on Anzio. Why she sent me to meet you, I think.”

“Can you give me any background? I know the investigation’s still in progress.…”

Mills closed a door Dan assumed led to the main passenger area. “I can tell you what I heard from the Port Ops guys. But I can’t vouch it’s true.”

“Always good to hear the scuttlebutt.”

“Yessir. Long’s you know I’m not exactly the burning bush … Savo went aground day before yesterday. Coming in early, in the rain, bound for anchorage A4. What I heard, the quartermaster chief noticed they were coming in off bearings. The navigator told the conning officer she was coming in too fast and to change course. She—the conning officer—she thought she was right, and the CO backed her. The navigator tried to relieve her, and the skipper told him to, quote, ‘shut the fuck up,’ unquote. Then ordered him off the bridge.”

Mills glanced at the door. “At that point—and again, this is secondhand—kind of an argument-slash-clusterfuck broke out. Suddenly the castle looms out of the rain. The bo’s’un sounds the collision alarm. The captain takes the conn, but they lose steering or maybe engine control, and when he orders the anchor dropped, the deck gang can’t get the brake released in time.”

A shiver harrowed Dan’s back. A concatenation of errors and failures leading to disaster. “How fast did they hit?”

“Fifteen, sixteen knots.”

He winced. “How bad’s the damage?”

“They’re still looking at it. A team from Surflant’s down there. And, um, a lot of Italians.” The aide’s cell went off. “Excuse me, sir.… Yeah … yeah, he’s here, in the DV lounge.… Yes ma’am. I’ll tell him.” He snicked it closed. “She says you might want to go down and take a look. I can drive you, if you want.”

Dan wavered, torn between waiting for Roald and wanting to see the ship that very soon might be his own. Then took a deep breath, and nodded.

*   *   *

FIVE or six demonstrators pumped placards as Mills flashed his ID at a police barrier between crumbling ancient bastions. Some of the signs were in Italian; others, English. One read NO TO SHOCK AND AWE. They were waved through, though a car that tried to follow them in was surrounded by the shouting crowd. They rumbled over a concrete causeway, past a marina. A tunnel yawned in a looming pile of decaying volcanic stone. “The Castel dell’Ovo,” Mills said. Dan assumed they were headed for the tunnel, but instead the road zagged and they skirted the massive sloped buttresses until the Mediterranean, blue and soft as a newborn’s eyes, opened ahead.

Police and fire vehicles were jammed bumper to bumper. They had to pass three separate cordons. The first two were Italian; city police, then the federal carabinieri. The last was U.S. Navy, in helmets and black Kevlar and shorty carbines with black web slings. Guards examined their IDs, listened to Mills’s explanation of who Dan was, and directed them to where they could look out over a final barrier of tumbled riprap crusted with barnacles and drifted plastic bottles and lost beach sandals.

The exposed mud smelled like a sewage treatment plant, but probably wasn’t as ripe as it would get in summer. The cruiser lay motionless. Heat shimmered above the stumpy aux exhaust riser aft, but as far as he could tell, the main turbines weren’t lit off. The sheer of the hull, the towering bluff of the superstructure, echoed the ramparts inland, though its horizon-blending haze gray was lighter than the ash-gray volcanic tuff of the medieval fortification. Tugs lay alongside, and the barge he’d noted from the air had been joined by another. Dan guessed they were taking off fuel, water, and lube oil, starting the laborious process of lightening ship. A third barge with a crane hovered some distance off.

A chief in tac gear saluted. He was in charge of force protection; could he be of any help? Dan nodded toward the ship. “I may be relieving her skipper. Depending on the investigation. What d’ya know about how she went aground?”

“Not much, sir. My team’s out of Civitavecchia. We’re just helping the locals maintain the perimeter.” He glanced seaward. “I got tac comms with our RHIB, though. Want to take a look?”

Dan considered. “Can I borrow a helmet?”

“Certainly, sir. Spare in the boat.” He spoke into a Motorola, and one of the circling inflatables broke from orbit and turned a blunt nose for them.

They boarded from a floating pier at the boat basin. Not far away several yacht owners were talking rapidly in Italian, gesticulating contemptuously toward the grounded warship. Dan settled Kevlar on his head as the rigid inflatable purred back out into the smoky wind, the light chop.

The cruiser grew as they neared. It towered vertical, clifflike, unclimbable, with a lack of motion that struck a sailor as unnatural, although the steady roar of blowers and machinery, the mingled smells of exhaust and fuel and cooked food, were familiar. The overlofty, topheavy-looking superstructure was canted slightly to starboard. Aluminum, Dan remembered, and the whole class had been reporting cracks. A seaman in dark blue coveralls watched from the boat deck. Dan noted the colors had been shifted aft.

His gaze rose. Aloft, flags fluttered, the surface search radar rotated. Flat squarish panels with truncated corners, not quite octagons, were set like badges on the superstructure. They were the ship’s reason for being; in many ways, her main batteries, though ranks of missiles were hidden beneath hinged flush covers fore and aft.

Those bland 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, track, identify, and reach out with missiles to destroy any aircraft threatening the massive carriers that centerpieced U.S. or NATO battle groups.

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

Dan had stood by the window of the vice CNO’s temporary office at the Buchanan House, looking out toward the Pentagon. The offices he and Niles had staggered out of together, through burning fuel, under collapsing ceilings, over torn-apart bodies, were being gutted and rebuilt.

“Yes sir,” he’d murmured. Niles had stalled his career, blocked his promotion, spread the word that the most highly decorated officer in the sea services was a hothead, an individualist, reckless, cavalier, unaccountable. He seemed to have changed his mind after 9/11. Somehow he’d engineered Dan’s fourth stripe, though his fingerprints were nowhere to be seen. But Dan was still wary of African-American admirals bearing gifts.

“You made captain. Sure you don’t want to cash in your chips? Take a medical retirement on those wheezy lungs, go make some real money?”

He didn’t answer, and a hollow boom quivered the air as a big palm walloped the desk again. “Okay. A command? I got one. You might actually be a good fit. Your background with missiles. Think about who you can cherry-pick from TAG to take with you. Fill in the holes.”

“Well, I—”

“But you won’t have long.” A sausagelike finger had boresighted him. “I can’t wait for results. 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.”

“What’s the mission, sir?” Dan had asked.

And Niles had told him.

“We can look at the far side, sir,” said the coxswain, beside him in the boat. Dan nodded. Binoculars flashed from the bridge wing; he turned his collars up to hide his rank insignia. On the port side the red antifouling coating rose several feet above the waterline. “The screws seem to be in deeper water,” Mills yelled, and Dan nodded again. That’d be a plus, if the shafts and screws weren’t damaged. He could borrow fins and take a look, if that wasn’t beneath the dignity of a skipper. Still, the sonar dome, all the way forward, looked as if it had been driven right up onto the shoal.

He took one more long survey, stem to stern, all 570 gray humming, roaring feet of her; at men and women standing about on the fantail, gazing longingly at the city that stretched away into the hazy distance, climbing the slopes of silent ominous peaks. Then said to the coxswain, “Thanks for the look. You can put us ashore now.”

*   *   *

DRIVING back to the base, Dan remembered coming here as a lieutenant (jg), aboard USS Guam. Naples had been a grim, depressed city of blowing trash and sullen crowds and wash hanging from shabby tenements, with too many people and far too little employment. In those days every bullet-chipped wall had been plastered with Communist posters, and sailors on liberty had been warned to travel in groups.

There was still trash back in the alleys, and the streets were no wider, but the Terminale Marittima had been freshly repainted and the cars they idled behind were new. The shops were all open, with bright signs and fully stocked windows. The women who crossed in total disregard of whether or not the lights said to walk swung along jauntily in glossy leather boots and stylish coats, and the men looked far more hopeful. Italy seemed to be doing well, even in what had always been one of its least-advantaged cities. Maybe the protection of the U.S. Navy had helped it get there. He liked to think so, anyway.

Mills was slowing the sedan at the entrance to the base when Dan noticed another crowd. The guardhouse lay at the end of a cul-de-sac walled off from the main terminal by blocks of warehouses and trucking garages and the concertina wire surrounding the Alitalia repair shops. A line of cars waited to enter, but between them and the guard shack a chain of demonstrators were waving signs, gesticulating, and marching back and forth. Their shouts echoed down the cul-de-sac, amplified by the concrete walls.

“What’s going on up there, Matt?”

“I’m not sure. Work disagreement, I think. There’s always a strike someplace in town.”

“That hasn’t changed.”

“Usually it’s pretty tame. They even announce the time it’ll be over, when they strike the train lines. So everybody can plan. It’s pretty civilized.” Mills touched the pedal and the sedan edged up. He slid out a sign that read AUTOVETTUR...

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