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Authors: David Poyer

China sea

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Title Page

Copyright Notice




Prologue I

Prologue II

Prologue III

I: The Ship

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

II: Easting

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

III: Tntf

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

IV: The Far Side of the Line

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

The Afterimage


St. Martin's Paperbacks Yitles by David Poyer

Blockbuster Praise for David Poyer and China Sea



To all those who have vanished without a trace,

Without a word,

Without a sign

Into the eternal mystery of the sea.

But especially to the officers and men

Of USSShark, USSEdsall, USSPillsbury,

USSAsheville, and HMASYarra.

The gods forgot you.

But we never will.


Ex nihilo nihil fit.For this book I owe thanks to James Allen, Harry Applegate, John J. Becker, Eric and Bobbie Berryman, Walter G. Clarke, Tom Cooney, Howard Denson, Joe Donohue, Sharon Doxey, Clark Driscoll, Heather Freidel, Noel Galen, Herb Gilliland, Vince Goodrich, Guy Grannum, Frank Green, Pegram Harrison, Cheryl King, Steven Klepczynski, Keith Larson, Carol Lewis, Lee Livermore, Luís Manuel Machado Menezes, Paula Mills, Gail Nicula, Doug Palmer, Kevin J. Philpott, Lenore Hart Poyer, Jarvis Rathbone, Sally Richardson, Mark Roberts, Beverly and Don Rock, Arthur Sanford, Jerry Sapp, Jack Schmock, H. Peter Schorr and the USS The Sullivans Foundation, Sandra Scovill, Maurice Shaw, Rob Taishoff, Jerry Todd, James Tomczak, Doug Undesser, Steve Wilks, George Witte, Elizabeth Wolf, Bob Wright, Andrew Young, J. Michael Zias, and others who preferred anonymity. As always, all errors and deficiencies are my own.


Capt.n Kidd Commission to Seize Pyrates.


William the Third etc. to Capt:n William Kidd Commander of the Ship Adventure Galley or to the Commander of the said Ship for the time being. Greeting. Whereas Wee are informed that … Our Subjects, Natives or Inhabitants of New England, New Yorke, and elsewhere in Our Plantations in America, have associated themselves with divers other wicked and ill disposed persons and do against the Laws of Nations daily commit many and great Pyracies, Robberies, & Depredations, upon the Seas in the parts of America, and in other parts, to the Great hinderance, & discouragement of Trade and Navigation and to the Danger and hurt of Our loving Subjects, Our Allies and all others navigating the Seas upon their lawful Occasions. Now Know Yee, that Wee being desirous to prevent the aforesaid mischiefs and as farr as in Us lyes to bring the said Pyrates, Freebooters, and Sea Rovers to Justice, have thought fitt and do hereby give and Grant unto You the said Capt:n William Kidd full Power and Authority to apprehend, seize, and take into Your Custody as well … all such Pyrates, Freebooters and Sea Rovers being either Our Own Subjects or of other Nations associated with them, which you shall meet with … with their Ships and Vessells, and also such Merchandizes, Money, Goods, and Wares as shall be found on board or with them in case they shall willingly yeild themselves; But if they will not Submitt without fighting; Then You are by force to Compell them to yeild … And Wee do hereby enjoine You to keep an Exact Journall of Your Proceedings in the Execution of the premises. In Witness etc. 26thJanuary 1695/6.

Warrant to my Lord Keeper of the same Date to affix the Great Seale.

William R.


20° 05' N, 118° 36' E: WEST OF THE LUZON STRAIT

THE full moon soared over a hazy sea. Beneath it, like a fallen galaxy, rode a scattering of lights so vast no eye could encompass them all.

But a goldenglowing tactical display did. The maritime patrol plane had been aloft for eight hours. Now it churned through the summer night, back to its base in Japan. The petty officer at the console only occasionally glanced at the picture that reached out three hundred miles. Yellow on black sketched the downward-pointing dagger of Taiwan. To the east, a speckle of islands, then the blunt rump of Luzon. To the west, the coast of China. And scattered across the center of the screen, the ships and aircraft that had maneuvered here over the last week.

That exercise had just ended, terminated early in order to respond to aggression and violence in the Persian Gulf. He was starting to shut down his equipment when he noticed a spike on one of the screens.

It showed the output of a sonobuoy he'd dropped an hour earlier. A dangling microphone, deep in the sea. He debated not reporting it, but finally depressed the switch on his headset mike as he pulled a keyboard toward him. “Charlie Charlie, Delta Lima. We have a surface contact out here. Two four-bladed props, steam propulsion tonals. I call it as a large combatant, nationality unknown.”

Forty-five miles astern, on the carrier, a petty officer clicked a transmit button. “Roger, Delta Lima. Have you been advised, we're hauling ass to rescue Kuwait. You're gonna have to keep tabs on the China Sea by your ownselves now.”

The aircraft, droning through the dark: “Roger, understand that, but I don't think this is an exercise contact.”

On the carrier, the petty officer hesitated. Then he heard the chief's voice, behind him. “You gonna pass that on up or am I?”

*   *   *

TWO minutes later the phone buzzed in the battle group commander's cabin. The admiral blinked himself awake with difficulty. Sleep had been all too short for the last few days. You were supposed to need less as you got older, but he wasn't sure he bought that theory. When you missed it, you didn't feel as sharp as you had at thirty, eager to jump into the cockpit after a long night partying.

“Yeah,” he grunted.

The flag watch officer gave him the essentials. An unidentified surface combatant had been detected west of the force. Did he want them to identify it, considering the exercise had ended? “Sure, why not,” the admiral said. “Detach a screen unit; let him check it out. No, make it two; include the Japanese if they haven't detached yet.”

“Do we need to adjust formation course and speed, sir?”

“I don't think so. What's the Luda group doing?”

Three Chinese warships and a submarine out of the big South Sea Fleet base at Zhanjaing had shadowed the battle group since the exercise began. The staff watch officer reported they were clear to the northwest. The admiral told him to maintain formation course for the Strait of Malacca. He hung up, rolled over, and went back to sleep almost instantly.

*   *   *

USSJohn Youngand JMSDFTakatsukireached the ship's estimated location at 0050. So far this was standard procedure. Any surface, subsurface, or air contact in the battle group's vicinity was tracked and identified. If the craft belonged to another navy, it would often try to maneuver into an attack position. Each side would hold contact as long as possible, gathering data and training sensor operators. It was a pickup game at sea, officially denied by all parties, but nonetheless engaged in.

The battle group commander was jerked awake again at 0115. “What is it?” he snapped.

“It's the unidentified contact they reported on the last watch, sir. Message from the surface action unit commander. It's evading.”

“Evading?” The admiral came fully awake. “Any identification yet? Anything on ESM?”

ESM was electronic surveillance measures, classifying ships and other threats from the signatures of their radio and radar. “No, sir. He turned west and went to high speed as soon as he realized they were attempting to intercept.John Youngtried flashing light, but he didn't respond.”

“CallJohn Young.Talk to the commander personally. Tell him to maintain the pursuit. Try to identify. But stay outside four thousand yards. Don't crowd him.”

The watch officer rogered and hung up. The admiral turned over but couldn't sleep.

At 0120 he let himself into the Command Decision Center. CDC was built of small interconnected rooms lit by dim blue overhead lights. Narrow walkways labyrinthed gray consoles. He pulled himself into a chair, staring at the large-screen display as the tactical action officer began briefing him on increased air activity in the Gouangzhou Military Region.

At 0136 the Tactical Officer's Plot, which tracked the surface picture out to thirty-five miles, called down to advise that the Luda group had altered course toward the task force. The admiral rogered, watching plane after plane rise into the air over southeastern China. A few minutes later he ordered all units to Condition Three.

At 0155 the mass of aircraft stacked over the Chinese coast began moving out to sea. As they moved out of the land clutter, they organized into two groups.

The admiral ordered Condition One, full manning and readiness for immediate action, throughout the force. He passed Air Warning Yellow, sent a Red Rocket message to Commander in Chief Pacific, info Pacific Air Forces, Thirteenth Air Force Clark Field, and the Joint Chiefs, and scrambled his fighter wings. The carrier began launching the standby combat air patrol to deal with the second strike group, now turning southward after the first. She launched a radar surveillance bird and electronic jamming aircraft. The antisubmarine warfare commander pulled his screen in tight around the carrier.

“Sir, the Luda group's still closing the formation.”

“I can't act against them at the moment.”

“Understand that, sir, but one of them's tracking right down toward us.”

“Can't the screen keep him clear?”

“Roger, sir, I'll pass that suggestion along.”

*   *   *

THE running lights of the ship ahead were startlingly bright, magnified by the haze above the warm sea. The destroyer skipper listened to his orders, face set, then turned to the officer of the deck. “OK, you heard the man. Get your rudder over now. Figure a course when you see the relative motion. Get between him and the carrier.”

“Sir, if he doesn't change course we'll hit him—”

“You heard me. Head him off!”

The OOD had never been ordered to put the ship into a position of danger before, and it took a moment to penetrate. The commanding officer was on the verge of relieving him when he said, “Aye, sir. Engines ahead full. Right standard rudder. Steady on one three zero … continue right to one five zero. Steady as she goes. Stand by for collision! Clear the starboard wing!”

The destroyer dug her stern in, heeling as the rudder levered at the sea. Turbines whined, and a white wave grew at her bow as the collision alarm needled into the eardrums of every man aboard.

A radioman coming out for a smoke break gaped up at a superstructure suddenly looming over him from the dark. Cooks clapped lids on boiling grease. Engineers went to their knees, grabbing for stanchions, the route topside through trunks and escape scuttles suddenly vivid in their minds.

The two ships came together with a crunch and lurch, the shock and energy absorbed by bending steel and crumpling strakes. A lifeline caught and peeled back, then snapped with a deadlyzingacross the deck. From the helo deck a knot of aviation mechanics looked across into another bridge, staring at the faces of the men inside, eerily lighted from below.

*   *   *

IN CDC, a television monitor showed a shrinking speck, steam whipping over the deck, the next fighter trundling toward the launch shuttle. At the same moment, a buzzer sounded from the compartment that housed electronic warfare.

“Pass missile warning, red. Air warning, red.”

The admiral stared at the gathering storm north of his force. The inverted triangles a hundred and eighty miles out were hostile aircraft. The inverted semicircles closer in were his air patrol. His sensors reported aircraft after aircraft switching on their missile-control radars.

So this was the kickoff. He just hoped they came through without losing too many guys. Leaning back, he tried to stay calm as the data updates made the hostile symbols jump inward every two seconds.

Then he recalled something. He leaned over and pressed a send key. “This is the admiral. Pass toJohn Youngto break off prosecution on the surface unidentified, and rejoin as soon as possible.”

Three minutes passed, during which the incoming aircraft bored twenty miles closer.

“Antiair warfare coordinator reports verbal warning, no response received. Request missiles released, contingent on detecting weapons separation.”

“Granted at crossover zone.”

“CAP One leader reports missile lock-on, request clearance to engage tracks A0028 through A0035 with Phoenix.”

“Stand by.”

An endless silence as the hostile tracks jumped inward again. Checking the surface picture, the admiral noted that the two destroyers he'd sent west had dropped their pursuit of the unidentified ship and were headed back toward the battle group.

The tracks leapfrogged again. The tactical action officer was staring at him, waiting for the order to fire. They'd ignored his warning. It was time.

Then the lead bogey sidestepped, clicking a small but noticeable increment to the southwest.

“Sir? Recommend weapons release—”

“Just stand by one. Just stand by,” he breathed.

“CDC, ESM: Fan head illumination ceases.”

“Western strike group breaking off. New vector 290. Looks like they're going home.”

Just short of the weapons release point, the strike broke off and turned back to the west. The Chinese ships clung to the formation for a few more minutes, then peeled off as the carrier and her escort moved on ahead into the open sea, headed west on the long transit to the Gulf.

The admiral tilted his chair back, watching it recede. At 0255 the chief of staff placed a draft message in front of him. He made two changes and initialed it, then leaned back again. “That was exciting.”

“Too damn close for my taste. But what did it mean?”

“They consider this their backyard. Something we did set the dogs off big-time.”

“But what? We were peacefully transiting through international waters. If we let them shut us out of the China Sea—”

“Yeah, I agree. But we've got other fish to fry and there's only so many pans. Saddam's invaded Kuwait. They want us in the Arabian Sea as fast as we can get there.”

“How do we react here?”

“Not our problem. We've passed it up the line. Now if you don't mind, I'm going to get my head down for a few hours.”



FOR some obscure reason, the powers that be had decided to hold the reception for the new Danish ambassador in a locale usually reserved for the most portentous of state occasions: the Hall of Supreme Harmony, deep in the imperial compound once known as the Violet City. It was walled by red-lacquered pillars and richly carved screens, decorated with bronze lions with strange uptilted snouts; from its ceiling shone dimly one solid blaze of reddish gold.

Beneath it a captain in trop whites stood in the middle of the vast expanse of floor, looking at the fierce entwining of sharp-clawed dragons high above. Swarthy and barrel-chested, the naval attaché wore dark glasses even though the hall was only poorly lighted. He was admiring a single dragon, which was dipping to suspend an immense golden pearl over the throne, glorious but empty, on a stepped dais near where he stood.

Jack Byrne sipped his drink, thinking about the days when “barbarian” emissaries to the Middle Kingdom had been forced to kowtow on these polished floors.

A middle-aged Chinese approached from the direction of the buffet, accompanied by an aide. Byrne recognized the round-faced, aloof-looking officer as Admiral Mi Guozhong and came to a higher level of alertness. Not only was Mi commander of the South Sea Fleet and, as such, of interest to any naval intelligence officer operating in-country. Not only had his father been on the Long March with Mao and Teng H'saio-ping, but Mi himself was extremely well connected within the oligarchy that administered and profited from the swiftly accelerating industries of South China, the Yangzi valley, and the Guangzhou Delta.

The admiral spoke briefly, and the aide translated in a high monotone: “Did you know that you are standing at the exact center of the Earth?”

“I hadn't realized that,” said Byrne.

“An ancient text states: ‘Here earth and sky meet, where the four seasons merge, where wind and rain are gathered in, and where yin and yang exist in harmony.'” The admiral turned slowly, eyeing the long north–south axis. “Here the emperor, as Mencius said, ‘stood in the center of the earth, and stabilized the people within the four seas.'”

Byrne knew Mi had more English than he cared to display, just as he himself had more Chinese, but he appreciated the use of the translator. It gave one a few seconds to think and a graceful excuse if something went awry.

“An impressive venue.”

“It is Emperor Yung Lo we have to thank for the complex of the Forbidden City,” said the aide, without Mi actually having said anything.

“A notable name in China's long history.”

“Yung Lo was the first Ming despot, a ruthless usurper and murderer,” said Mi, speaking for himself now in a serviceable though accented English. “Capable, ambitious, and cruel. But effective.”

“If one must be cruel, one should at least be effective.”

“It was Yung Lo who sent out the fleets to the south. Though I understand it is not a well-known event in the West.”

Byrne began to pay attention to what had seemed up to now a fairly innocuous conversation. He took a sip of his drink, knowing his role at this moment was less to understand or respond than to recall and transmit, word for word, if possible, whatever message would shortly be conveyed. “I've heard of it. But perhaps the admiral would like to enlighten me further?”

“Gladly,” said Mi, tapping a cigarette out and bending his head as the aide snapped open an engraved Zippo. The smoke rose toward the hovering dragons like an offering. “In 1405, the emperor sent out a great expedition under the eunuch Cheng Ho. The first fleet consisted of sixty-two vessels, with twenty-eight thousand men on board. In his seven cruises, Cheng Ho brought under the tutelage of the Middle Kingdom countries from Java all the way to East Africa. Including every state bordering what even you still call the China Sea.”

“I seem to recall, however, that his visits, grand though they must have been, were never repeated.”

“Unfortunately, that is true. The Mongols were growing in power outside the Wall. The Mings had to shift their attention back to the northern steppe. Save for that, Asia might have been spared the interlude of European exploitation and hegemony.”

“And been subject instead to the benevolent attentions of the—how did you put it?—‘ruthless' Mings.”

The admiral smiled faintly. “Let me ask you a question. Please, answer not in your diplomatic capacity, but as an officer with some influence in the U.S. Navy. As I ask not in an official capacity, but as part of the brotherhood of the sea.”

“I understand. Though my influence, as you call it, is very small.”

“The recent encounter between your aircraft carrier battle group and our forces, west of the Luzon Strait. What is your navy's view of that incident?”

“We regarded it as an unfortunate misunderstanding,” Byrne said carefully. “That's why we didn't make a public statement.”

“I don't see it in that light,” said Mi. “As a matter of fact, the next time a provocation like that occurs so close to our coast, within waters that are historically Chinese, I believe we should send up our latest aircraft, shoot down your carrier planes, and sweep your very small number of overrated ships from the sea.”

Byrne felt disbelief, then rage at the nakedness of the threat but disguised both reactions with a bland smile. “You mean we are azhi laohu,” he said, using the old Maoist phrase. “A paper tiger.”

The admiral gave a short, harsh laugh, one that the intelligence officer, who had visited many countries and heard many different kinds of laughter, had never encountered before. “We no longer use that expression, Captain,” Mi said. “But there seem to be elements in American military circles who still do not understand the changes that have taken place in China. They seem to think this is still the era when your Asiatic Fleet was permitted even to violate the Long River. It is time they understand those days are past.”

The attaché thanked the admiral for his interest. After a few more remarks, mainly about the Danish ambassador's stately wife, the Chinese excused themselves and strolled away.

Jack Byrne stood alone again, swirling his drink as he contemplated what was obviously a back-channel message from some faction within the Chinese armed services. What precisely did it mean? And to whom should it go? Mi had made it clear he wasn't speaking as a government representative. If Byrne forwarded it through embassy channels, State would simply file it. And the next time the Navy exercised in those waters, the Chinese might very well carry out their threat.

It wasn't the first incident like this. It was part of a pattern; one that spelled danger, and that if continued could end in confrontation and catastrophe for both sides. Someone had to lay down a marker. Draw a line. Make it clear that there was a limit.

Standing beneath the golden dragons, Byrne said to himself,We're going to have to come to some understanding with these bastards.



HE had a name, but not the one he used in daylight. He had a face, but he revealed it to no one. Save to those who looked on it as their last sight on earth.

Through this crowd of beings driven by unthinking desire he moved with the purpose and fixity of the eternal stars.

Etched with light like the gate of heaven, the square at night was a foretaste of hell. Cadaverous men offered drugs, their terrorfilled eyes the best argument against their wares. A man in a crusted vest thrust a flyer into his hand, a come-on for an “adult club.” Shabby video stores, topless bars, grimy peepshows where furtive women muttered promises with their lying, diseased lips. As he paused beneath the marquee that advertised live boys, the wind rose between the reefs of buildings, rattling grit and paper cups across the street. Music came from somewhere, distant, distant. Beneath it lay the unending rumble of the subway, a lead foundation under the violet wheels of arriving night.

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