A Question of Wardrooms
The grind of life on a warship tended to bring its own inertial motivation, a daily round of meetings, exercises and tasks, occasionally interrupted by a “live” mission. Three times, Emily’s chopper had flown the teams out to islands at the southern end of the Philippine archipelago, and each time they’d come up empty, finding only the detritus of abandoned camps. All the while, the Amphibious Squadron steamed eastward, heading for the Marianas where another set of exercises had been scheduled. The Devil Dogs understood what it meant – “Operation Seabreeze” was as much about fostering cooperation as about catching actual terrorists.
Meanwhile, Emily frequented the “dirty shirt” wardroom, which catered to the aircrews. CJ and Zaki preferred to take their meals in the XO’s wardroom, but Emily didn’t care for the formality, and cafeteria-style service suited her mood better these days.
“Are you hiding down here?” Perry asked, as he swung a leg over the chair opposite and nudged his tray against hers to make room.
“Do I have to answer?”
“Aren’t you afraid the senior staff is gonna notice your absence?”
“Yeah, and I hear the ship’s company gets better food,” Emily replied without looking up.
“The CO has been hinting that he wants another translator at meals.” He looked for any sort of reaction, even annoyance at his suggestion, and when none was forthcoming, he added: “And with you down here, Diao has everything his way with the conversation.”
“Hasn’t it occurred to you that he’s the reason I’m down here?”
“You’re not afraid of him, are you? That would be a first.” When she raised her eyes, he got a pretty good indication that he’d pushed her too far.
“Well, as far as everyone else can tell, he’s witty and charming, even urbane.”
“I can see your vocabulary is growing merely by eating with him.”
“It’s not just me. Kano and your friend, Lt Otane, seem to have taken a liking to him. And that should tell you something, after what happened to Tsukino.”
Emily looked up, her eyes wide and brow furrowed, then composed her face and said, “I hope he’s learned his lesson, at least.”
“What do you mean?”
“Moon got off easy this time around. If he tries that again with Diao…”
“Look, I get it. You saw something. But all anyone else in the hangar bay saw is that Diao got a little carried away. It didn’t look sinister… just high spirits.”
“I didn’t just see something. He let me see. He showed me what he would do, you know… when the moment comes.”
“And why would he do that? I mean, if he’s got some secret plan, why would he clue you in?”
“I don’t know, but what you think you saw wasn’t just high spirits. He was under control the whole time, toying with Tsukino like a cat with a mouse, and deciding whether to end him or not. He simply chose not to. You and Kano had nothing to do with it.”
“Even if you’re right, you still need to be in the black-shoe mess. It’s a hint from the CO right now, but pretty soon it’ll be a suggestion from the Admiral.”
“Is this a private party, Lieutenant Commander, or can anybody join?” Captain Tim Martinovich asked as he slid his tray along the table, not waiting for an answer. The entire airwing knew him as Tunafish, even if Emily resisted this informality. He’d been her flight instructor at Camp Pendleton, even been at her “winging” ceremony, but none of that mattered, especially when Perry had gotten her into such a foul mood.
Perry turned to look, half-surprised at the interruption, until he remembered where they were. “No, sir, please join us,” Emily said, relieved to be able to change the subject.
“Because I can’t have you rattling my nugget’s cage, Mr. Hankinson,” he said. “We’ve got a full slate of fast-rope exercises this afternoon with the Chinese this afternoon, and I need her at the top of her game.”
“He still calls you his nugget after how many hundreds of hours on the stick?” Perry asked.
“And if you keep ‘sirring’ me at all the wrong moments, I’m gonna have to ask the devil-dogs what the latest call sign for you is,” Martinovich said. “I’m sure the high-and-tights down in the training room can tell me.”
“It’s Ninja,” she muttered.
“That’s not very imaginative,” Perry said. “It’s like they’re not even trying. Though I guess it’s an improvement over Canine.”
“Canine?” Martinovich asked.
“You don’t want to know,” Emily said.
“At least it’s not Bosnia.”
“Bosnia?” Perry asked, as Emily made a show of leaning over to examine Martinovich’s rear end.
“You’ve been ashore too long, Mr. Hankinson. It mean’s Fat Ass, more or less,” he said. “And yes, Miss Tenno, I realize this flight suit doesn’t flatter my hind quarters, but at least they’re ‘Standard Navy Issue’.”
“As is your butt… sir,” Emily said.
“I don’t think anyone can say the same about yours.”
“Can we change the subject?” Perry said.
“Sure,” Martinovich said. “How about we discuss Ninja’s troubles finding a place to stow that shotgun onboard my Phrog?”
“Won’t it fit behind her seat?”
“It fell out during a hard bank the other day.”
“Don’t worry, sir. It’s not gonna go off by accident. All the safeties were set. It just needs a bit of sticky.”
“Why does she even need all that ordinance on her person anyway? A standard sidearm is plenty, especially if it’s that cannon she’s got strapped on her hip.”
“What can I say? I believe in being prepared.”
“Have you tried writing her up for it?” Perry asked with a wink in her direction.
“Yeah, right. Like your compadre wouldn’t make me eat the paper, and if he didn’t, I’d probably hear about it from the Admiral. It really is like having a spec-ops co-pilot… and don’t get me started about the sword she insists on bringing along. I mean, that damn thing has gotta be at least two feet long. Is a Ka-Bar too small for her.”
“I’m just testing out the shoulder-rig I have for it. But if it makes you feel any better, I won’t bring it on any more training missions.”
“You crack me up, Tenno. Don’t you know it makes me feel just that little bit safer knowing you’re armed to the teeth in the seat next to me?”
Of course, Emily’s absence from the XO’s wardroom left Kiku in an uncomfortable position. Her own English skills sufficed to translate what Kano said for the Americans, but she could not always to translate what the Americans said for him. Cpl Iwatani helped out from time to time, when he wasn’t occupied with Capt Ongpin, since his knowledge of English was better, but she feared the inference Kano might make about her mission-relevance if she relied too much on his assistance.
“The Marianas exercises will come just in time,” the XO, Capt Robert “Tex” Torricelli said, after everyone had cleared the buffet line. “There were still some rough edges to be worked out in the last action.”
“Then it’s a good thing our intel was worthless,” Theo offered, as he shook out his napkin. “If we’d actually met any actual terrorists….”
Torricelli scowled and Capt Ongpin chattered out some sort of protest, and Cpl Iwatani translated: “We are dependent on Chinese satellite imagery for the westward reef-islands. I cannot be held responsible for the delays in getting that data.”
“Obviously, our satellite technology is years behind the Americans,” Capt Diao said in very polished English. “Perhaps if our hosts would be willing to reposition one of their many satellites a little further east, we could have all the accurate intel you require.”
“You claim that these terrorists are working with the Moro Liberation Front,” Theo said. “But so far, we’ve seen no evidence of this. How about you show us the intel that supports that conjecture?”
“Unfortunately, those files are classified above my security clearance,” Diao said.
“That’s convenient,” Theo muttered.
“It is possible that the terrorists have advance knowledge of the movements of this squadron.”
“Since we remain beyond the curve, do you mean they have access to better satellite data than you do, Mr. Diao?” Torricelli asked.
“That would be strange, indeed,” Diao replied. “But could they not merely be responding to sightings of your AV-8B Harrier jets, or your ASW Helicopters, which typically precede the squadron’s arrival, and do not remain hidden behind the horizon?”
“And then pack up everything within two hours?” Kano said, after a tedious passage of translations managed by Lt Otani and Cpl Iwatani. “That hardly seems plausible.”
“Perhaps sightings from the earlier raids…” Diao said, until Theo interrupted.
“They didn’t remove everything. What about all those stubbed out Chunghwa’s we found at the first encampment?”
“Yes,” Kano said. “There must not have been sufficient warning.”
“I prefer Lucky Strikes,” Diao said. “Anyway, this tells us nothing. The Chunghwa brand is distributed widely.”
“But it is most popular among ethnic Chinese throughout the region,” Cpl Iwatani said, and then went quiet after Capt Ongpin cleared his throat.
“And they have not been known to join terrorist groups,” Kiku added. “At least not…”
“Are you insinuating that outside agents are working with the terrorists?” Diao glowered at her as he spoke.
“There’s little evidence to support that conclusion,” Torricelli said. “What is clear, however, is you have not achieved full operational readiness. I don’t want any friendly fire incidents.”
“Two weeks of exercises in the Marianas ought to help with that,”
“I think some of your Marines are expecting sandy beaches and surf,” Diao said.
“Oh, there will be some surf, but precious little sand. Mostly what we’ll see is the broken calderas of ancient volcanoes, with jagged, rocky shorelines and sheer cliffs.”
“Sounds like a tea party,” Kano said, after hearing Kiku’s translation.
“Then we return to CFA Sasebo to prepare for the second phase of Operation Seabreeze,” Torricelli said. As people filed out of the wardroom, he added for Theo’s benefit, “It wouldn’t hurt if we had more translators. Even around this table it’s hard for Otani and Iwatani to keep up.”
Theo glanced at Kiku and said, “Don’t worry, sir. Hankinson’s talking to her. But, operationally, she can’t help much, unless we send her on the missions.”
“I know SECNAV is curious about her, and the Admiral probably wouldn’t complain to loudly if she found herself at the front of an action, but it’s not gonna happen on my watch.”
Kiku didn’t understand everything they said, but that it concerned her friend was clear enough. Michiko pushed limits in ways that shocked her, but for some reason the men in her country, in her navy, didn’t react in the same way, as if they had no sense of the improprieties.
Diao had lingered at the door, no doubt to listen in, and she pushed past him, shaking her head. And in the corridor, she could hear him proposing an expansion of Lt Tenno’s role in the upcoming exercises.
“It’s a relatively safe way to see what she might be able to contribute,” she heard him say.