Nine Dash Line, the thrilling new story from the author of The Weather Inside
On a coral reef outpost in the South China Sea, a man and a woman battle the elements, each other and fate.
Punished for a mysterious crime against the Communist Party of China, a man has been exiled to Mischief Reef, a politically contentious coral sprawl in the South China Sea. Tasked with turning the reef into an island by dredging sand from the ocean floor, he follows the bizarre directives from his fellow castoff—enduring the memories that torment him—and awaits his helicopter home.
But a woman arrives instead.
A U.S. Navy intelligence officer, Jess is serving on an aircraft carrier—the first woman ever to do so—until something goes very wrong. Abandoned in the middle of the South China Sea, Jess is rescued by Philippine Navy sailors who’ve been strategically moored for far too long. Things get complicated when their unhinged leader declares Jess an angel sent to save them from their disastrous mission. But Jess is no angel; she’s done horrible things and she’s desperate for absolution. And the only person who can give it to her? That man on Mischief Reef.
Set in the 1980’s, and inspired by real but re-imagined events, the mystery of fate unfolds dramatically in Nine Dash Line. What brought these two people to the South China Sea? What binds them together? And how in the world will they ever get home?
For more information about Nine Dash Line, contact Hilary McMahon at Westwood Creative.
Excerpt from Nine Dash Line
1 / Jess
A waterbed and a ripping hangover. These are the facts Jess tries to reconcile as she wakes up sloshing around, a headache thudding behind her eyes. The two often go together, she reasons. After all, who of a sober mind would buy a waterbed, and an orange one at that? But still. The waterbed doesn’t make sense. She’s never slept on one, only seen them in the movies. So, this is not her waterbed. She looks down. And this is not her dress. Silky. A print of pineapples she has to squint to see. A dress for a vacation, a resort or a cruise. A dress she would never ever own.
She plunders the last twenty-four hours, but it’s all so dizzying, and the goddamn slushing of the goddamn waterbed is not helping. She’s going to be sick. She pulls herself to the side and throws up onto the carpet. It’s a light blue, this carpet, and shimmery, and the bile that comes out of her sinks into it and disappears. She doesn’t get it, has no idea. So she gathers her legs beneath her and slinks over the side of the bed. Her toes try to warn her, but her neurons have been dulled so it’s too late. She plunges feet-first into the freezing cold ocean.
Mouth and eyes close against the rushing in of water. Arms pull her back to the surface, back to the safety of the waterbed. How does her body know what to do when her mind has no idea? Her eyes are still closed but she is starting to see—this is no waterbed, this is a life raft. She crawls under the canopy, steeling herself to look over the edge and expecting to see the shore just feet away—but instead she finds ocean, endless miles of it, and its endless waves and creatures. A shadow swims beneath the raft, a shark or a whale, or a fish so large to be mistaken for either. She curls into herself. Sucking air, shivering.
A hiss, but not her own. She scuttles on her knees chasing the sound until she finds the puncture and sits on it. From her cloudy memory, she tries to exhume the truth, but her delicate recall is interrupted by a squabbling mouth. It sounds like a bird. Must be, she decides, through the mental fog. Falcon? Vulture? She must be as near-death as she feels. She’s read a lot of books, knows it’s the eyes it’ll go for first. So she covers her face and with her last ounce of energy she kicks at the air. Kicks and kicks until oblivion.
Army boots. Jean shorts. A Debbie Gibson t-shirt. Jess works her way up, putting the incongruous pieces together. It’s the outfit of a man. A bald, short, barrel-chested man holding a cuckling rooster. The man speaks in a language she doesn’t know, like a song sung in reverse. He leans towards her and she takes him to be Filipino. He takes a look up her dress, traces the tattoo running the length of her thigh. “Smith” it reads, in elegant black cursive.
She could kill him, she thinks. Wrap her legs around his neck and squeeze. But she doesn’t, decides it’s best not to move for now, not to react until she has more information. Moving only her eyes, she scans the space. How did she get here? And where is here? The ceilings are high, twenty-feet, and rigged with cable and rusted pipes. Ducting snakes the walls and corrodes to the floor that corrodes too. Exposed rebar everywhere, flourishing like weeds. There are thousands of holes and where there is solidity there are puddles, and in the puddles oil drums, waylaid pipe and filing cabinets. Everything tossed around and splintered. Things she didn’t think were possible to rust are rusted. Paperwork, jam jars, caramel wrappers.
A second man now, Filipino, too, but otherwise different. Tall, young, flip flops instead of boots. Camouflage tank top, cargo pants. A strip of canvas tied around his head of black curls. Some kind of Rambo wannabe, she thinks, as he slaps away the bald man and covers her decently with the pineapple dress.
The two men argue, about what they should do with her or to her. This she has to guess at because she cannot understand them, but there’s a lot of pointing and gestures, some shoving, so she knows they disagree. In the commotion, Jess reaches for a thing she can weaponize. A pipe.
Shit, she thinks. How many men are there? She turns. This man is older than the other two, mid-forties. Cargo shorts, Pepsi t-shirt, flip flops. “Calm down,” he tells her in English. He’s got a gun pointed at her, but he’s smiling and his eyes are warm, gentle. He steps to her slowly, like he’s placating a tiger. He raises his hands, though Jess knows he does not raise them in surrender, because he has the gun. He raises them to build trust, to make her think she has power when it’s evident she does not. He’s clearly in charge. Has the gun, has the countenance of a leader, the patience. Jess’s first instinct tells her he’s military, but he can’t be. Not in these surroundings, not in these clothes.
“How much?” she asks, her throat is dry, her voice brittle.
The men swap looks and shrugs. Mutter indecipherably.
“Ransom. How much are you fucking terrorists asking for me?”
“Terorista?” says the one in the Debbie Gibson t-shirt, pointing to himself and chuckling.
Rambo doesn’t find it funny. He turns to the man with the gun. “I think you should shoot her.” This he chooses to say in English. This he wants Jess to understand.
“Relax, Ocampo,” says the man, tucking his gun into the waist of his cargo shorts.
“Relax? Did you hear what she called us?”
“She’s dehydrated and confused; she doesn’t know what she’s saying.” He rolls a bottle of water across the floor. Jess scrambles to it, tears off the lid. Sucks it down in one choking swallow.
“I’m Lieutenant Santos,” he says, “and these are my men.” He points to the short, bald one. “That’s Master Chief Petty Officer Cruz.” Cruz licks his lips and makes a kissie face, then raises the rooster to her like it’s a champagne flute. “And this is Petty Officer Ocampo.” The young Rambo.
She wipes sweat from her mouth, tastes blood. “Where am I?”
“The Sierra Madre,” says Santos. “Strategic vessel of the Philippine Navy.”
A measly crab scuttles across her shoes. “This is a boat?”
She feels movement, a sway in the floor. Her shoe is wet. “So we’re on the ocean right now?”
Santos thinks about it. “More in than on.”
She moves away from the men, wobbling over planks laid across the saggy, eroded floor. She looks down and finds shallow ocean, one wrong step and she’ll tumble into the path of a blue-cheek butterflyfish. She ducks her head through a blown-out porthole and witnesses the wider view: a skin of sea bruised with coral. She looks beyond the breaking curl of wave to the horrifying infinity of open ocean. The only landmasses she can imagine are the backs of whales.
The muscles in her legs twitch, unaccustomed to steadiness after maybe days on that life raft. As she sinks to the floor, Ocampo swoops in, kicks the pipe away and binds her hands with duct tape.
“Let me go!” she yells, squirming.
“What are you doing?” says Santos.
“Sir, I’m telling you, we can’t trust her!”
Cruz is still laughing. “Terrorista? Ako?”
“Remove the tape, Ocampo.”
“She’s a Chinese spy,” he says, holding onto her wrists. “They sent her here to sabotage us!”
“You idiot,” Santos says, pulling Ocampo away. “Does she look Chinese to you?”
In the chaos of this place, of her blurry head, even Jess is not sure. She examines her own body to confirm. Her white skin. Tattoo on her thigh. These things are hers, are her. The hair, though. She pulls at a lock, studies it. Blonde and coarse. And the pineapple dress. Silky, expensive, impractical. The blonde hair and the dress are not hers. She knows this innately, and that displaced feeling centers her, pulls her back to reality, wakes her up. She mines herself, scraping the walls of her consciousness to bring it all back. Who she is. What happened. Where she is versus where she needs to be, now right now. There’s no time to waste.