Editor’s note: an excerpt from this story appeared in the print edition of the July issue. The full story is presented here.
Imuruan Bay, Philippines, 2027
Lieutenant Billy Nix, skipper of the USS Talbot, set down the handset and grinned. “We’ve got a live one.”
Standing next to him in the pilot house, Captain Andrea Yu raised an eyebrow. “What kind of live one?”
Nix pointed at a map, jabbing his finger on the water just off Cagnipa Island. “Nothing we haven’t seen a dozen times. Illegal fishing by a Chinese trawler. Filipino coasties already have a patrol boat en route. We’ll see if we can’t beat ’em there.”
Ensign Angelo Bautista, their liaison from the Philippine Coast Guard, shook his head. “Your rig might be faster, but my boys are halfway there. The race is already over.”
Nix raised an eyebrow. “You want to put some money on that, Bautista? Make it interesting?”
Bautista laughed. “Not in good conscience. It’d basically be theft.”
“If you’re done,” Yu said, “let’s get moving. I’ll stand up my team.” She permitted herself a half smile. “And it’s our turn to pick the pursuit music.”
Nix grimaced. “Yeah, yeah. What’ll it be?”
“Not the Bee Gees if we have anything to say about it,” Yu said.
“Nothing wrong with the Bee Gees. They’re classic.”
“Some classics age better than others,” Yu said, stepping out of the pilot house.
She glanced to the aft of the ship and saw Master Sergeant Darius Washington leaning against the rail, smoking next to Lieutenant Dusty Munro, the U.S. Coast Guard the embarked U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement detachment officer in charge. As Yu walked toward them, the Talbot came to life and accelerated to cruising speed. Washington braced himself, almost stumbling at the sudden movement.
Yu slapped Washington on his shoulder. “One day, Top, you’re going to lean too hard, break that rail, and put your swim qual to the test.”
Washington snorted. “It’ll be for a good cause, Ma’am. Then these boats finally might get the budget they deserve. What’s going on?”
“We’ve got a contact. Illegal fishing. We’ll stick with the basic playbook, but if we can let the Marines get a little froggy, I’m all about it.”
Munro shook his head. “What do you mean, ‘get a little froggy’?”
“Easy there, puddle jumper,” Yu said. “No one’s going to end up in the brig. But if we can exercise our capabilities a bit, now is as good a time as any.”
“Sometimes I feel like you guys only keep me around for the authorities,” Munro said.
“Sometimes?” Washington asked, giving him a side-eye and grinning.
“What’s next on the team’s list for our pursuit song?” Yu asked.
“Let’s find out.” Washington turned to the bow, facing the main deck cabin. “Flores!” he bellowed.
The hatch of the cabin opened, and Corporal Miguel Flores, the team’s radio operator, trotted out to them.
“What’s our next song, Flores?” Yu asked.
Flores’s eyes lit up. “I’ve got a blast from the past: ‘Rhymin’ and Stealin’ by The Beastie Boys!”
“Well spin it up, Flores, we’re on a schedule,” Yu said.
Flores dashed into the pilot house. Seconds later, the song started blaring over the 1MC.
Because mutiny on the Bounty’s what we’re all about
I’m gonna board your ship and turn it on out
No soft sucker with a parrot on his shoulder
Cause I’m bad gettin’ bolder—cold getting colder!
Washington rousted the Marines of the maritime interdiction team (MIT), while Chief Mark Malone got the crew of the Mk VII patrol boat to their stations. The song was a rally cry and a competition as the naval force raced to be fully ready for the contact by the time it ended. In short order, the Talbot’s crew were kitted up and manning the crew-served weapons that bristled along the boat’s sides, while the MIT stood by to handle any surprises the contact might provide.
As the Talbot closed in on Cagnipa Island, Nix sighted the BRP Cabra, a partnered patrol boat from the Philippine Coast Guard. Nix gave a course correction, aiming to bring the Talbot in formation with the Cabra. Floating off the coast of Cagnipa was the Chinese trawler, as well as the Philippine fishing boat that had reported it.
Sighting the trawler, Gunner’s Mate Erik Olsen kneeled at his mounted GAU-17 minigun, took off his pack, and turned on the Backpackable Electronic Attack Module (BEAM), jamming the trawler’s communications. Next to him, Gunner’s Mate Susan Cuddy op-checked the light variant of the active denial system (ADS), pointing the mounted heat ray at the personnel aboard the trawler.
“Do we finally get to have a cook-out with that thing, Cuddy?” Flores asked her, passing by.
“If you can find us some steaks, I’ll make it happen,” Cuddy said.
Petty Officer Gabriel Castro, the ship’s unmanned systems operator, deployed a package of small aerial and surface drones. After confirming their feeds were active in the pilot house and op-checking their targeting systems, he linked up with Flores, who had attached a plushie parrot to his left shoulder with Velcro.
“Nice touch,” Castro said.
“I had to get rid of my eye patch,” Flores said. “Top said it’d screw up my aim. But I’m already such a bad shot, I told him it didn’t matter.”
Petty Officer Sarah Maliah, the mass communication specialist, lowered her camera and gave Flores a disappointed look. “I take it you lost the argument.”
Appearing behind Flores, Bautista held out his hand. “Hook a brother up?”
Flores powered on a black handheld radio and handed it to Bautista. Turning toward the Cabra, Bautista slid into fluent Tagalog, made contact with their partners, and headed over to the pilot house to relay traffic between Nix and the Cabra’s skipper.
From the pilot house Nix watched and coordinated the action, pivoting between the views offered by the drones, the handset linking him to Yu, and the manual relay offered by Bautista to the Cabra.
It was a textbook action. The Marines boarded the trawler from one side, the Filipino coast guardsmen boarded it from the other, while the Talbot provided overwatch with its crew-served weapons and drones. The integration between the forces was seamless, the product of months of training and boarding actions, and the presence of Munro gave them all the authorities needed to prosecute the mission.
In short order, the Cabra had the fishing violators under arrest and safely aboard. Yu eavesdropped on the bickering prisoners, hiding her Mandarin fluency long enough to let them implicate themselves. Once security was established, Maliah broke away from her mounted .240 and climbed into the flybridge, supplementing the drone feeds with her own video camera work. She highlighted the captured small arms to illustrate the prisoners’ membership in the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) and launched the footage in real-time back to Task Force 7/3’s public affairs shop for production and distribution. The Marines cleared the trawler one last time to confirm no one else was on board, set an explosive charge, then disembarked.
Once the Cabra and the Talbot were safely distant, they detonated the charge, destroying the trawler. As the Talbot set sail back to its expeditionary advanced base (EAB), the Bee Gees’ “Sinking Ships” played from the 1MC, carrying the lyric across the water:
Watching them sail and the sun as sinks in the sea
Only the eyes of the doomed with a smile on their face . . .
Near Port Barton, Palawan, Philippines
As the Talbot cruised into the dock at its EAB, Yu was surprised: Instead of the concealed entry hidden by dense jungle foliage, she saw Seabees in the open dismantling some of their prefabricated infrastructure.
Before the crew moored the boat, Sergeant Donavan, the EAB’s logistics chief, trotted out of the brush and onto the dock, waving an arm. “Ma’am! Sir! Major Vouza needs you at the CP pronto.”
Yu and Nix glanced at each other, both wondering if the boarding action had been misreported and cast them as criminals. “Another investigation?” Nix grinned. “Whose fault this time? Blue team or green team?”
Donovan shook his head. “The EAB is getting moved, and a mission just dropped for you. It’s urgent. Last thing we’re going to do before bumping to a new site is top off your boat.”
“Thanks, Donny,” Yu said. She punched Nix in the shoulder. “Let’s go.”
The two naval officers disappeared into the brush, stalking through the trails until they reached the EAB’s cammie-netted command post. A suite of radios, laptops, networking equipment, and hydrogen fuel cells seemed to spring up in the middle of this patch of jungle, manned by a team of naval communicators and intelligence analysts. Antennas were lashed to the trunks of trees, with their polarized elements just breaking through the canopy to maximize concealment.
Major Charles Vouza, the dual-hatted EAB and boat company commander, glanced up from a screen and waved the pair over. He rose to meet them and shook their hands. “Welcome back, for a minute, anyway,” he said. “I watched your boarding on the feed. It was magnifique,” he said, making a chef’s kiss.
“We were supported by a great crew,” Yu said.
“The troops did all the work,” Nix countered.
“True,” Vouza said, “but your people don’t get that good on accident.”
Vouza gestured at the command suite and changed the subject. “So, listen up. We’ve got two grenades in our lap. Grenade one: our supply line’s been made. Our sustainment network in San Vicente got infiltrated by some PRC agents, and now we can’t trust any of our supply flow. We’re tearing down camp today and are going to bump down to Rizal tonight. So, once your next mission’s done, you’ll link up with us there.”
Nix groaned. “This is the third bump plan in two months.”
“Buck up, shipmate,” Vouza said, smiling. “You were recommended by name for this outfit. You should be enjoying the constant changes as much as your junior command.”
Nix shrugged. “Failing up, you mean. My last CO was more than happy to offload me.”
Vouza offered a half-smile. “And I was more than happy to take you on. You’re just belligerent enough to be a perfect fit for maritime counterinsurgency.”
Nix gestured at Yu. “What’s that make her?”
“The angel on your shoulder,” Yu said, fighting back a grin. “What’s the other grenade?”
“We just got a report of a maritime militia vessel harassing local fishermen off Half Moon Shoal,” Major Vouza said. “Only they’re playing this one a bit different. The Chinese used a water cannon to force the fishermen from their spot and off their boat. Then they sank the boat. Thankfully, most got into a life raft, but some didn’t. The fishermen who tried to swim to the Chinese vessel were shot.” Vouza pointed to a screen, showing a video of the action, recorded by the fishermen and uploaded via Starlink.
“The Chinese ambassador to the Philippines already put out a statement that they are ‘merely policing their jurisdictional waters in accordance with international law.’”
“What about the surviving fishermen?” Nix asked.
“The last video we got from them showed the life raft made it to the shoal. Then the militia crew threatened to shoot the fishermen if they didn’t toss their devices into the water, which they did. So, we don’t know how they’re looking right now.”
“This doesn’t fit China’s usual playbook at all,” Yu said. “They push until they meet resistance but don’t actually try to pick a fight. They’re escalating.”
“And they’re doing it right in front of us,” Nix said. “They know we’re patrolling here. Maybe they’re trying to get us to overreact? Paint us in a bad light and hurt our credibility?”
“Lots of unknowns,” Vouza agreed. “Might just be an off-kilter commander. Might just be seeing what we’ll do. We don’t have the intel to say for sure. But this already has the IndoPaCom commander’s personal attention, or at least the attention of his Twitter account. And the tasking came directly from Task Force 7/3. They’re sending a cruiser our way, but it’ll take a while to get here. Higher wants a boat out there, and they want it now. We’re closest. The BRP Cabra is delivering prisoners, and the other boats in our company are too far out.”
Vouza paused, meeting the eyes of Nix, then Yu. “That means it’s your show. Get after it.”
Near Half Moon Shoal, South China Sea
Master Sergeant Darius Washington, Corporal Miguel Flores, and Petty Officer Sarah Maliah stood at the stern of the Talbot as the boat cruised toward its objective. Flores’ rifle dangled from his sling as he struggled to light a cigarette, but—stymied by the wind—he swore and gave up.
Washington smirked and shook his head. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
“You mean there was a time Flores didn’t know how to play with fire?” Maliah asked, holding her hand out.
Flores handed Maliah his pack of smokes and lighter. Shielding the lighter from the wind, she lit three cigarettes, handed one each to Washington and Flores, and kept one for herself.
Taking a drag, Washington continued. “Banana Wars, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and now the South China Sea. Big wars and little wars. Doesn’t matter, Marines are always fighting against insurgents. The big difference this time is that the Navy’s in on the game.”
“Top,” Flores said, “I may not be a very strategic corporal, but since when is a bully like China an insurgent?”
Washington shook his head. “Call this great power competition if you want, but our slice is all hearts and minds. We’ve got one set of rules, and the PRC has another. We like our rules better. And we want the people caught in the middle to play by our rules, too.” Washington forced a cold smile, ear to ear. “I may as well be fighting ISIS again, though I’m glad I don’t have to do as much walking.”
Maliah pointed. “There’s our target.”
In the distance, the 60-meter-long boat floated in the water, a white and red sentinel looming over Half Moon Shoal.
Nix’s voice blared over the 1MC: “Stand to, stand to, stand to.”
The Marines and sailors echoed the command, and the boat came to life once more as all hands moved to their designated positions. The crew-served weapons and posted Marines made the boat bristle like a porcupine. Castro deployed the usual drone package, and the first aerial drone shot forward over the shoal.
In the pilothouse, Nix and Yu took a closer look through the feeds. A yellow life raft floated in the middle of the shoal, and the fishermen waved frantically at the drone as it passed overhead. Another feed circled the Chinese boat.
Nix pointed at the screen. “Those boats are purpose-built for the militia. It’s not just another trawler with militiamen embarked. The water cannon is a dead giveaway.”
Yu nodded, focusing on the crew, noting its small arms, bearing, and dispersion across the ship. “And the crew might be in civvies, but they’re trained. This isn’t their B-team.” She leaned in closer, noting a pair of microwave dishes mounted to the ship that she didn’t recognize. “You think that ship has other tricks up its sleeve besides a water cannon?”
As if in answer, two of the aerial feeds went blank, and the suddenly lifeless drones fell dead into the sea.
Nix snatched up a handset. “Castro, pull our drones back out of range of whatever they’ve got!”
Castro furiously entered commands into his console. The last aerial drone started to peel back toward the Talbot, wavered, then crashed into the sea. One by one, the surface drones also went dead in the water.
“Call it in,” Nix muttered.
Behind him, Information Technician Andrea Swenson tried to raise the EAB on the radio but was greeted only by a confounding warble through the headset. “Sir, I think we’re being jammed.”
Yu unclipped her handheld radio from her plate carrier, tried her team’s internal net, and received the same distorted feedback. She leaned out of the pilothouse.
“Flores!” she cried. “Any of our bands working?”
Flores trotted over to Yu, with Washington on his heels. “No, ma’am,” Flores said. “VHF and UHF are down and out. I could give HF a shot, but I’d need time.”
Yu looked at the Chinese boat as the Talbot approached, and it seemed to grow in size, a closing monster. “I don’t think we have any.” She looked at Washington. “Let everyone know this might get ugly.”
Washington passed the word, then took his post at the stern, right between two of the .240s and their gunners. His spine crackled with the same alertness he’d felt on patrol in the desert nearly two decades ago, when a village would suddenly go silent right before his platoon walked into a complex ambush. He clicked his rifle off safe.
“One good turn deserves another,” Nix said. “If we can’t talk, neither can they. Lay it on ’em, Swenson. All bands. Let’s go blind together.” Swenson complied, flipping several switches, and the Talbot’s jammers pulled from the ship’s power to dump radiofrequency across the ship’s usable spectrum.
“If our feeds are down, and no one’s transmitting, then no one’s watching,” Yu said. “We’re on our own out here.”
Nix glanced at the Talbot’s communications suite, which he’d long viewed as a ball-and-chain tethering him to higher headquarters. The cord temporarily cut, he felt himself in free fall. The freedom he’d wanted so long was both exhilarating and terrifying. He repressed a shiver.
“Right,” he said. “We need a record, or it’s our word against theirs.”
“We can pull Maliah off her .240, get her in the flybridge now to start filming,” Yu offered. “I’ll have one of my guys take her spot.”
Nix nodded. “Do it.”
As Maliah climbed into the flybridge, the Talbot closed within hearing of the Chinese boat. Nix grabbed a megaphone, headed to the stern, and delivered his challenge.
“Unknown vessel, this is Lieutenant William Nix of the USS Talbot. You are in gross violation of the international law of the sea. Further violation may result in detainment and seizure of your vessel.”
The pilothouse opened on the Chinese boat, and a lean, wiry man stepped out, holding his own megaphone. His sleeveless t-shirt and board shorts contrasted sharply with the black assault rifle slung to his body and the sheathed dagger at his hip. In highly polished English, he replied.
“USS Talbot, this is Zhou Liang of the Qiong 21. We are legally enforcing the territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China. You are cautioned not to interfere in China’s internal affairs. You are further warned that you are violating the territorial integrity of China. Failure to depart may result in your detainment and destruction of your vessel.”
Nix looked over at Lieutenant Munro. Munro’s eyebrows raised, marveling at Zhou’s brazenness. “What is this, the shadow game? How old are we?” He shrugged at Nix. “We’re well within our rights here. It’s just a matter of how you want to proceed.”
“That’s exceptional English for a ‘fisherman,’” Yu muttered.
“And I’d swear that’s a QBZ-95 assault rifle,” Washington added. “They don’t issue those to militia.”
Yu lifted her rifle and used the magnification on her scope to get a closer look.
Chief Malone walked up to Nix. “We can wait through a stand-off, sir. The cavalry’s on its way and we’re fully stocked.” He pointed at the fishermen, still floating in the middle of the shoal. “But they’re going to need a hand sooner rather than later.”
“Right,” Nix said. He lifted the megaphone and announced his intent. “Qiong 21, we are obligated to recover these stranded civilians. We will approach the shoal to do so. We appreciate your noninterference with this humanitarian operation.”
Through her scope, Yu continued to scan Zhou, and froze as she saw the tattoo on his shoulder: a red shield featuring an inverted yellow dagger, surrounded by a sharp yellow lightning bolt. She lowered her rifle and leaned over to Washington. “He is or was special forces. The whole crew might be. This is a trap—I just don’t know what kind.”
The Talbot started moving around the Qiong 21, making a course toward the life raft. The Qiong 21 gunned its engine, putting itself right in the Talbot’s path. The Talbot corrected sharply to avoid a collision, sending Marines and sailors to the deck amid a clatter of kit and a litany of swears.
Again, Zhou spoke through the megaphone. “Talbot, these criminals are in our custody. You will kindly refrain from interfering with our internal matters.” Still, the Qiong 21 took no action to recover or detain the fishermen.
Both boats continued to float idly forward, nearly in parallel with one another. Yu figured a crew member from one boat could reach the other with a running start. Getting to her feet, she told Washington, “They want to posture? Okay. Let’s put on a bit of a show and see whose cage gets rattled.” She drew the bayonet from its sheath on her plate carrier.
Washington followed suit and shouted the order: “Fix! Bayonets!” Down the boat, the Marines echoed the command, attaching bayonets to their rifles. On the Qiong 21, some of the mariners took instinctive steps backward, and others whispered anxiously to one another. A handful held firm, completely unphased.
“They’re a mixed crew,” Washington guessed. “Some are militia, but Zhou has picked men for whatever they’re up to.”
Livid, Nix joined the others along the side of his boat, a stone’s throw away from Zhou, and spoke to him directly.
“I’m done playing games. Time to put cards on the table. You want to keep being stupid? Fine. But we’ve got a cruiser inbound, with more on the way. You can bump into them all you want but it’ll crack your boat in two.” He pointed up at Maliah, who stood in the flybridge and had Zhou in her camera’s sights. “In the meantime, you’re still on candid camera. So, you can let us get those people out of the water and save some face, or we’ll get to do it on our terms after you turn tail and run.”
Zhou glanced up briefly at Maliah, then back at Nix. “We’re filming, too,” he said. Then he gave a brief, clipped order in Mandarin. To herself, Yu translated: Make it rain.
The Qiong 21’s water cannon opened up directly at Maliah. The force of the blow knocked her back with a cry, throwing her and her camera through the air and into the water. The cannon then strafed the Talbot, knocking crew members to the deck.
Yu ducked for cover and thought, It’s the Galwan Valley all over again. They’re baiting us into a fight. She saw one of the Talbot’s .240 gunners sighting in on the water cannon. We can’t shoot first, not like this, she thought. Through the deluge, she shouted, “Hold—!” then cut herself short, thinking “Hold your fire’ could be misinterpreted as “fire.” Instead, she cried, “Take cover! Take cover!” while frantically waving her hand in front of her face, palm out, the distinctive signal for “Cease fire!”
Chief Malone hurled a life preserver toward Maliah before getting knocked down by the water cannon blast. The Talbot shot forward, out of range of the water cannon. As it did, the Qiong 21 moved into a blocking position between the Talbot and Maliah, who had dumped her kit and managed to get ahold of the life preserver, her camera still hanging by the strap around her neck.
Zhou, straight faced, glanced behind his boat at Maliah, then back at the Talbot. “You’ve put us in an awkward position. We’ll have to take your sailor into our custody. You’re welcome to follow us back to port, where you can join her and be assured of her welfare.”
Fuming and dripping wet, seeing his sailor helpless in the water, the horror story of Iran capturing an American patrol craft flashed across his mind. He ran back to the pilothouse. “Everyone off the deck and brace for impact. We’re running the Ben-Hur option!”
The sailor and Marines hurried into whatever cabin space they could find. Nix brought the Talbot around, aimed the boat directly at the Qiong 21, and pushed to max speed. The Talbot crashed into the Qiong 21 with a deafening crack, hurling several of its crew into the water. The Talbot’s stern raised slightly onto the Qiong 21’s rails, tipping it slightly, and forcing the remaining crew on the deck down the incline and against its rails. Both boats were effectively dead in the water, but it was clear the Qiong 21 was listing and couldn’t stay afloat. The Talbot’s crew and troops hurried back onto the deck and to their fighting positions. “Let’s try this instead,” Nix said. “You come into our custody before your boat sinks. Or you just hang tight and learn how long you can swim. What do you say?”
Zhao scanned his crew, saw how many were in the water, and how many were still aboard and armed. He looked back at the Talbot and took stock of its force. In a commanding voice, he gave his men another order in Mandarin. Once more, Yu translated: Throw smoke and board. We’re taking her.
“They’re going to board!” Yu shouted. Zhao’s eyes darted to Yu, realizing she understood him. A heartbeat later, Zhao’s men tossed smoke grenades, and a cloud of white smoke started to fill the decks.
The gravity of the situation slammed into Yu like a hammer. They mean to capture or kill us, she thought. They don’t see any other choice. This is real.
“Cuddy! Bring the heat!” Yu cried.
Gunner’s Mate Cuddy activated the ADS and oriented it on the Qiong 21. Immediately, the heat ray went to work, filling the targeted crew members with a feeling of unbearable, fiery pain. Several ran a few steps and leapt over the side of the boat and into the water to escape the harmless but searing agony inflicted by the ADS.
Zhou saw his combat power, and his position, rapidly plummeting.
He gave the order to fire. His men complied, firing through the smoke.
The first round snapped overhead, a wild shot. The next tore through Bautista’s leg and he slumped against the bulkhead, a look of confusion on his face. Munro went for his sidearm, but shots tore through his shoulder and slammed against his body armor, knocking him to the deck.
“Fire! Fire! Fire!” Yu cried, lifting her rifle and sighting in on the outline of one of the Qiong 21’s crew members. Through the smoke, he didn’t look much different to her than a target on the range. She squeezed the trigger and the shape fell.
From the Qiong 21, bursts of fire from assault rifles shot toward the Talbot, crashing into the boat and its crew, sending flakes of bulkhead flying through the air and blood splashing onto the deck. Through the veil of smoke, Nix agonizingly recognized which of his sailors were hit by the noises they made, and wished he couldn’t.
“Strafe their deck!” Washington shouted at the gunners, and the M240 and GAU 17 roared into life, cutting across the Qiong 21 and hammering against the boat. Pieces of it flew back on the Talbot in a rain of debris. The rattle of the guns was met with cries of dying men.
The smoke expanded into a fog, clouding both boats and their crews desperately fighting for their lives.
In his peripheral, Flores saw a figure climbing over the side of the Talbot. He turned and slashed with his bayonet, catching the man’s arm and hearing an anguished cry. The boarder lifted his weapon with his unwounded arm and struggled to sight in. Shouting, Flores thrust forward, plunging his bayonet into the man’s chest. Firing spasmodically, the man fell into the water.
There was a distinct pop to Yu’s left, and the GAU-17 went silent. Yu turned, still couldn’t see anyone through the smoke. “Olsen? Get that gun back up!”
Another pop answered her. Yu found herself knocked to the ground before she felt the crushing impact against her chest. Her rifle slid from her hands and over the side of the boat. Dizzy, gasping to breathe with the air knocked out of her, she struggled to look up. She wasn’t sure if it was her SAPI plate or her ribs that were shattered. Through the clearing smoke, she saw Zhao stalking forward, weapon up, ready to take down yet another member of her team.
As Zhao stepped over her body, Yu reached up and snatched his ankle, sending him tumbling forward. His elbow crashed against the rail as he went down, sending his rifle overboard as well.
Zhao fell in a tangle on top of Yu and instinctively threw a punch with his left hand. Yu turned her head into the blow, and Zhao’s hand cracked against her Kevlar helmet. Yu thought she could feel the knuckles break through her helmet.
Crying out, Zhao tried to scramble away, but Yu grasped his shirt and threw her legs around his torso, trapping him in her guard. Her ribs still rattled with pain, but she found she could breathe again. Through the din, she realized the rate of fire from both boats was lessening, though she couldn’t know if that was a good or bad sign.
Grimacing, Zhao reached to his waist with his uninjured right hand, drew his dagger, and plunged down at her neck.
Yu threw up her hands, catching Zhao’s forearm, and pushed it forward over her head. The blade slashed across her cheek as it passed. She pinned Zhao’s forearm to her chest with her hands, controlling his one arm with her two. It brought their grimacing faces within inches of each other. Zhao glanced up, and Yu followed his gaze. Her eyes widened as she saw him slowly rotate the blade back toward her face.
Struggling to keep his arm trapped, Yu opened her guard, threw her right leg around Zhao’s neck, then cinched her left leg over her right ankle in a triangle-choke and squeezed.
Zhao’s eyes bulged as she locked in the pressure. He tried to pull away but couldn’t. His face grew red as his body struggled to pump blood to his brain but failed. Slowly, his body went limp, and the dagger fell from his hand.
When she was sure he was out, Yu kicked Zhao off her, then struggled to her feet. As the smoke cleared and gunfire ceased, she surveyed the aftermath of the brief, bloody fight.
Bodies littered both boats, and others floated in the water. The survivors from the Qiong 21 sat on the deck with hands up, under the raised guns of the Talbot’s crew, while her dead were being covered by poncho liners. The corpsman put a tourniquet on Bautista’s bleeding leg. Munro, one shattered arm hanging uselessly from his side, used the other to sign off on the enforcement documents to take the Chinese militiamen into custody.
Just behind Yu, Olsen lay dead beside his mounted gun. Yu trembled and her knees threatened to buckle, but she stood fast.
Nix limped toward her, his pistol in his right hand, and his left hand held over one eye, with blood pouring down his face.
They looked at each other and said nothing, saying everything they needed to say.
A sudden splash on the side of the boat caught their attention. They looked over, and saw Maliah, still holding onto her life preserver, struggling to climb aboard.
Together, Yu and Nix heaved her aboard. Maliah held her camera up.
“I caught it,” she gasped. “I caught all of it.”
Nix smiled and slapped Maliah on her shoulder. “Well done, shipmate.”
“We own the story,” Yu said. “We’ll tell everything. Tell it right. For them,” she said, nodding at the crew, living and dead.
In time, the cruiser arrived, the fishermen were recovered, and the Talbot’s dead, wounded, and prisoners were embarked. The Talbot’s steering was restored, and replacement crew members were assigned as needed. On the cruiser, Maliah personally helped produce the footage that was soon broadcast across the world, demonstrating the PRC’s aggression and the firm commitment of the U.S. to its allies and partners, bringing more members into the coalition.
Nix, despite his eye patch, insisted on taking the Talbot back to port. In the pilot house, he turned to Flores. “It’s your turn. What’s our breakaway song?”
“I’ve got just the thing,” Flores said.
With the sun setting, the Talbot cut through the water, the 1MC broadcasting the Motorhead’s ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’ like an anthem:
Breaking up or breaking through
Breaking something’s all we ever do,
Shoot straight, travel far,
Stone crazy’s all we ever are,
But I don’t care for lies,
And I won’t tell you twice,
Because when all else fails,
Dead men tell no tales . . .