cruise missile into the air at a fifty-degree angle. The solid motors
burned out and fell away; the cruise missiles, gulping air now, steadied
on course at altitudes of only a few feet, arrowing toward the distant
Russian carrier at Mach 7.
The Pobedonosnyy Rodina never had a chance. Her escorts turned back even
before the huge vessel capsized beneath a funeral pall of roiling black
One of the oil-covered survivors pulled from the Black Sea by one of
Jefferson’s helicopters hours later had been one Vitse-Admiral Nikolai
Sergeivich Dmitriev, encountering the Jefferson for the second time in
his career. He’d requested asylum as soon as he was aboard.
Tombstone wondered what he and Boychenko had been talking about in the
Turning in his seat, he could see a great crowd of Jefferson’s enlisted
men and women stretched across her deck in a shoulder-to-shoulder line,
walking slowly down the deck, their eyes on the Kevlar-coated steel at
their feet. Occasionally, someone in the line would stoop, picking
something up off the deck. The exercise was called a Foreign Object
Damage walk-down, an FOD for short, and it was the most efficient way
the Navy had come up with yet to clear the flight deck of every single
dropped nut, lost tool, or anonymous chunk of metal that might be sucked
into an aircraft’s jet intakes during flight ops.
Small things could do tremendous damage, all out of proportion to their
size. It was literally true that a thirty-five-cent bolt sucked into the
air intake of a Tomcat on the deck could ruin a
thirty-five-million-dollar aircraft–at least to the point where a set
of turbine blades had to be pulled and replaced and the compressors
checked for damage. A single million-dollar Phoenix could take down a
thirty-million-dollar jet a hundred miles away.
A single carrier battle group could change the politics of a nation.
Strategically, the raid on Kerch had been a pinprick, inconsequential in
any larger scheme of things, but it had demonstrated the resourcefulness
and will that were by now defining characteristics of the United States
Navy. It had also broken the air power of the Black Sea Fleet; at last
report, Ukrainian landing craft had been coming ashore at Mikolaivka and
Kacha, just north of Sevastopol, and were on their way to overrunning
the entire peninsula. The UN had protested, insisting that the Crimea
was under UN protection, but no one seemed to be paying any heed.
The loss of the Crimea might well be the final blow to Marshal
Krasilnikov’s hard-line rule of what was left of Russia. No one could
know with any certainty, however, what the future held for that unhappy
Tombstone, however, knew exactly what was in store for him. It was the
end of the twentieth century, the beginning of a new era. .. a new
world. For a long time, he’d wondered whether technology and events had
already passed him by, whether or not it would be better if he accepted
that he’d gone as far in his naval career as he could. Civilian life,
sometimes, looked pretty good.
But he knew now that that was not for him. The special fraternity with
the men–and women–who sailed and flew with him was something he would
not easily be able to lay aside.
He looked around the bridge of the Thomas Jefferson, caught Brandt’s
eye, and winked.
The Jefferson might still have three thousand miles of open ocean
between her and her home port, but Tombstone Magruder knew that he was