A lifelong Search-and-Rescuewoman, Coast Guard Captain Jane Oliver is ready for a peaceful retirement. But when tragedy strikes, Oliver loses her husband and her plans for the future, and finds herself thrust into a role she’s not prepared for. Suddenly at the helm of the Coast Guard’s elite SAR-1 lunar unit, Oliver is the only woman who can prevent the first lunar war in history, a conflict that will surely consume not only the moon, but earth as well.
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"The top story tonight – military sports continue to dominate ratings for the twentieth straight week, with the Army's World's Best Ranger Competition capturing over 100 million viewers in the coveted prime time slot. Even bigger is this year's Boarding Action, which pits space-based crews in a simulated boarding of a hostile vessel in zero-gravity. The highest rated civilian sport is still the American NFL, but it doesn't even come close, with less than fifty percent of military sports' audience share in that coveted 18-39 demographic. It truly looks like the new age of military training competitions as a civilian spectator sport is here to stay."
Jennifer Salvatore, Media Mix
"Now this," Captain Jane Oliver said, gesturing through the hatch of the Defiant Class response boat, "is a really bad place to put your shotgun."
The students in the boat maintenance class crowded closer, squinting through the fluorescent overhead lights at the weapons clasps. Then they stood back, looking at her with blank expressions, nobody wanting to question the wisdom of such a high-ranking officer. The instructor was used to Oliver pausing in her daily rounds to take over the class, and had patiently stood aside, but he spoke now. "Ma'am, that's the proper place for long guns. That's why the clasps are there."
"That's real nice," Oliver replied, "but you try getting it out of those rubber bands in four-foot swells when you need it in a hurry. In the clasps for inspection. In the seat-sleeve for ops. Trust me on this."
She smiled and the students smiled with her. To them, a captain was akin to a god, and she knew the reminder that their leaders rode the same rough seas they'd be tackling went a long way. She also knew there were precious few officers at her level that still did.
"That's gear adrift, captain," one of the students ventured. The rest glanced from his face to Oliver's in shock, and then with admiration once they realized that she wasn't annoyed by being challenged.
"New rule," she said, "unless there's water on the deck, gear isn't adrift. You can quote me on that. Now, are you insulting your coxs'un? Saying he can't keep water off the deck?"
She gestured to the two students with coxswain qualification badges, and the class laughed. "No, ma'am."
"Thought so!" She grinned. In the years since they'd assigned her here, she only ever smiled when she succumbed to the temptation to take over the classes and give them the real scoop on what life was like in the boat forces. And as the commanding officer of the training center, she could only do that once in a blue moon. The rest of the time was a video on repeat in her head – her shouting to Kariawasm to pour on the throttle, Tom's boat coming apart under a hail of autocannon fire.
The instructor exchanged a look with Commander Ho. Her XO only smiled. If Oliver was frustrated with being pulled off operational duty, then Ho was thrilled. The sterile halls and quiet contemplation of the schoolhouse suited him just fine. She felt a pang of jealousy at his obvious contentment and squashed it an instant later. She had promised herself that she wouldn't let Tom's death make her bitter. She would be happy for the happiness of others, and if she couldn't feel it, then she would damn well fake it.
She turned back the class and paused. Captain Sean Elias was walking through the maintenance bay doors. Behind him, the York River twinkled in the Virginia sun. He was wearing his "tropical" blue uniform, the hard shoulder boards and pressed shirt that he only wore for important business. That he'd come to find her in the boat maintenance facility instead of waiting in her office was troubling.
"OK, Chief," she said to the instructor, "I think I've stolen enough of the class's time, you have the conn. Thanks for indulging an old lady."
"It's our pleasure ma'am," the instructor said, but she saw his shoulders relax as he returned to the lesson.
Ho was at her side as she shook Elias' hand. "Hey Sean, you clean up nice."
Elias glanced down at his crisp uniform as if he were surprised to be wearing it. "Sorry to interrupt, you looked like you were on a tear there."
"Nah," Oliver said, "I was just wrapping up."
"That's a lie," Ho smiled.
Elias laughed. "Yeah, I don't believe that for a minute. Jane, do you mind if we do this in your office?"
Oliver cocked an eyebrow. "Depends on what we're doing. You look like you're about to summon me to a court martial."
"No, nothing like that. Just something best done in private."
Oliver's office was just plush enough to convey her authority to subordinates, but not so well appointed that Oliver might start thinking she was an admiral. A long, glass-surfaced cherry-wood desk dominated the blue and gold rug, emblazoned with the crossed anchors of the Coast Guard. Behind the desk, a broad oil painting depicted the Coast Guard's sole Medal of Honor winner evacuating marines off Guadalcanal in a hail of machine gun fire. The same family picture she'd had on the Aries occupied the credenza beside her challenge coin display, Tom smiling out at the camera as if he would be waiting for her when she got off duty.
Ho's office was adjacent, but she motioned for him to stay, and he leaned against the credenza as Elias took his seat in the chair she reserved for students who were in her office for an ass chewing. She'd deliberately chosen chairs with short legs in order to make her charges smaller than her. She hadn't intended the effect for Elias, but she was glad of it anyway. If she didn't know what he was here to do, let him be intimidated while he did it.
"OK," she said, "what's this all about?"
"You want the good news or the great news?" Elias spread his hands.
"How about the cut-the-bullshit-news?"
Elias bit back his smile, "Well, there's a star for you, if you want it."
She saw Ho stir out of the corner of her eye. He was normally as still as a crocodile until he had to move. This was as much of a tell as a man like him gave. Oliver didn't move, but it was a long moment before she answered. Whatever she'd expected Elias to say, it wasn't this.
"I'm pushing thirty years in," Oliver said. "I can't take a star."
"Yeah, well. They're willing to make an exception in this case. We can get you a waiver, and in this command, you'll ... uh ... well, you'll age more slowly."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"The 16th Watch, Rear Admiral Select," Elias leaned forward, grinning, "the moon."
Oliver felt her stomach turn over. The image of Tom's small boat ripped in two swamped her. She was there again, wrenching the frozen handle as she watched the wreckage of her husband's ship settle into the snow-like surface.
"I'm a blue water coastie." Oliver had to speak slowly to keep the tremor out of her voice. "I've been on the moon exactly once. This has to be some kind of mistake."
Elias shook his head. "No mistake, Jane. They want you on SAR-1."
"You can't want an O6 kissing retirement to run search-and-rescue in a domain she isn't familiar with."
"SAR-1 is now part of the Tactical Law Enforcement Detachment on Mons Pico."
"SPACETACLET," Oliver said. "The lunar head shed. What's SAR-1 doing attached there?"
"SPACETACLET is the command element now. The Commandant wants a unified presence for all lunar ops. Law enforcement and SAR are one body. Putting SAR-1 front and center sends the right message."
"And what does the old man want me to do with SAR-1?"
Elias gestured at the silver eagles stitched to her collar. "You're a leader. He wants you to lead it."
Oliver stared at him so long that Elias began to talk to fill the silence. "Look, Jane. SPACETACLET was the main responding element at Lacus Doloris after you were knocked out of the fight. They lost people."
Before she knew what she was doing, Oliver had leaned forward, covering her face with her hands. She remembered the Quick Reaction Force prying the hatch open, dragging her out. She remembered them cracking the hardshells of Flecha and Kariawasm's suits, laying them out on silver blankets on the regolith despite the lack of atmosphere. It didn't matter, they didn't need air anymore. Somewhere less than a hundred yards away, she knew the Navy corpsmen were going through the same ritual with her husband's body.
When she looked up again, Elias' face was inscrutable. "Morale is low on Pico, Jane."
She stumbled over the next words, desperately searching for something to say. "Chief Elgin and Petty Officer McGrath ... are they still attached?"
Elias nodded. "Both of them were due to rotate out last year. They requested extensions. Chief pulled in every card he had to stay put."
Elias looked uncomfortably at Ho. "Jane, maybe it would be best if ..."
"Commander Ho has been with me for my entire career. Anything you can't say in front of him can't be said."
Elias shrugged. "Look, Jane. We both know you've been ... adrift since Tom died. Are you sure you're ready to retire?"
"That's condescending as fuck. I've made it through worse."
Elias' position in the sunken chair didn't intimidate him at all. "We're all worried about you."
"I am, everyone in the C-suite is. The boss is."
Oliver swallowed the anger that rose in the back of her throat. Tom's death was hers. Her loss. Her fault. It wasn't for Sean or any of the top brass or even the goddamn Commandant himself to be deciding what that meant to her. She paused, steadying her breathing before she answered. "The Commandant doesn't know who I am."
Elias sighed. "You're the legendary 'Widow Jane.' Of course he knows who you are."
Oliver remembered an interrogation she'd done of the head of a metal theft ring, stealing copper wire out of offshore buoys. The man had an odd tic – whenever he was hiding something, he would lick his lower lip, darting just the tip of his tongue out to barely sweep it before reeling it back in. Elias did that now. Oliver's eyes narrowed. "Look, I appreciate the routine to make it seem like it's in my own best interests, but you're not here because you're worried I'll wilt in retirement. You want something. The Commandant wants something. I don't know a damn thing about space, Elias. I've been a blue-water coastie my whole career. The one tour I had out there was cut short after ... what happened."
Elias ignored the reference to Lacus Doloris. He laced his fingers behind his head and leaned back in his chair, as if they were only talking about where to go for lunch. "Space-schmace. It's just another unforgiving environment, think of it like the dunk tank. You can't tell which way is up, only, it's all the time."
"You're not exactly selling it," Oliver stifled a smile.
"Yeah, well. The old man doesn't want you for space stuff. He wants you to teach." Elias leaned forward again.
"To teach what? I've been doing boarding actions all my life."
"That's what he wants you to teach."
"You want me to teach water-surface boardings to lunar SAR operators? What is wrong with you?"
Ho cleared his throat so softly it would have gone missed had it been anyone else. "In all fairness, ma'am," he said, "you could teach fish to walk."
"Thank you, Commander Kiss-Ass." Oliver slapped her palms on the desk and turned to glare at him. Ho tugged his forelock, inclined his head and smiled.
"Here's the thing," Elias said. "Navy is making a big push to remove us from lunar operations. They want the Coast Guard Earthbound, for space to be declared 'universal high seas.'"
Oliver sucked in her breath as she thought of the Navy small boats torquing into position over Lacus Doloris. She thought of their flat-gray, gun-studded hulls. She thought of the way the miners surged to the attack at the sight of them. "What? That's a terrible idea. We need less militarization of space, not more. The Navy's the wrong tool for the job."
"That's what they're saying about us, and the President is listening. Jane, I can't stress this enough, we're on the brink of war here. The Commandant has met with the Secretary of the Navy three times in the past month, and he can't convince him. You don't need me to tell you how bad this is. We're not going to bring peace to the moon if the American and Chinese navies are skirmishing every time a quarantine-runner strays into the Chinese Exclusive Economic Zone."
"So what do you want me to do about it from Mons Pico? Shouldn't you make me Navy Liaison Officer or something?"
"That's not how the Commandant wants to handle it. Look, we've pretty much lost the argument that this is a law enforcement or customs issue. The government is sold that it's a military one. If the Coast Guard wants to take the helm here, we can't keep showing the President that we're the right SAR element to keep space safe, we have to show him we're the right military element to beat the Chinese."
Oliver felt the first touch of a headache behind her eyes. None of this made any sense. "Sean. We're the Coast Guard. We're not the right military element to beat anybody."
Elias laughed. "Well, you've got me there. Fortunately, politicians are easily impressed."
"What do you want me to teach these guys to do?"
"We need you to get them in shape for this year's Boarding Action. Commandant thinks if we win, it'll give us the hand we need. It's a major media event, watched by millions of Americans. If we win it, that'll give us the leverage we need to stay on, and if we stay on, we can keep the Navy from turning quarantine-runners into a pretext for war. SPACETACLET came close last year ..."
Oliver blinked. "We're going to stop a war ... by winning a game show?"
Elias smiled. "I know it sounds odd, Jane ..."
"You're goddamn right it sounds odd!"
Elias passed over his phone. "Here, let me show you something."
"Look, I like baby pictures as much as the next gal, but if you're hoping to soften me up, you're going to have to ..."
Elias laughed. "My daughter is a junior in high school and my son starts college this year. I've queued up two videos for you in my camera roll."
Oliver arched a skeptical eyebrow. "Should I be careful scrolling here? I don't want to accidentally run into ..."
Elias waved a hand. "Jane, please. Humor me here."
Oliver thumbed through and played the first video. It was well familiar to anyone from hundreds of social media ads. Vice Admiral Augusta Donahugh, commanding officer of the Navy's 11th Fleet – in charge of the service's operations on the 16th Watch. The vice admiral was a small woman, lean and healthy looking, her defiantly undyed hair and the wrinkles around her eyes the only hints that she was either north of sixty, or very close to it. She leaned into the camera, her eyes burning with passion for her mission, her solid gold shoulder boards bunching toward her neck. The video must have been shot in front of a green screen, washed out now and replaced with 11th Fleet's flagship – the USS Obama, its thousand-foot length stretching past the borders of the screen, toroidal chambers slowly rotating to bring spin-gravity to its sickbays and ops center. The film's producers had highlighted the ship's batteries, lightening them to make them stand out to the audience – ball turrets projecting autocannon barrels, missile pods with gleaming orange piezo-electric fuses. Navy small boats swarmed around it like a cloud of gnats, guns run out, a few flying American flags from their antennae mastheads.
"As a little girl, I dreamed of visiting the moon," Donahugh said. "I never imagined the day would come when I'd stand at the helm of the one force that is making life there possible. The United States Navy has led the way to new frontiers for the entirety of our nation's history, projecting American power into the farthest reaches of our oceans, a truly global force for good. And now, we're the tip of the spear, bringing justice and peace to that same moon I dreamed of visiting when I was growing up. You don't need me to tell you how important this is. As the main source of Helium-3, the moon is the future of clean energy for the entire world. It's imperative that the United States remain at the forefront of the fight to secure this critical resource."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sixteenth Watch"
Copyright © 2019 Myke Cole.
Excerpted by permission of Watkins Media Ltd.
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