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Thunder In the Lightless Sea

Fiction Contest Week

On Ganymede’s lightless sea, there is no surfacing.

By Lieutenant Jonathan French, USN

            The light of a thousand auroras glimmering over Tros crater’s deepest point faded on the digital screens across the USS California’s red-lit control room. Shifting ribbons of azure and emerald backlit by a vast crimson hurricaning spot all turned to dark static. The enhanced optics of the aging fast attack submarine’s photonics mast were wholly unnecessary for the mission to come. And yet, the signals they sent to computer screens within the ship’s high yield steel hull were the only window its one-hundred souls had to the outside world.

            “Conn, radio, last broadcasts from Astral-X Orbiter-5 cleared. Ready to lower all masts and antennas.”

Lieutenant Commander Amy Langston paused as she reached to key the 7MC in answer, the whole of the warship shuddering for an instant. She had been prepared for every moment of this mission. Years of training, evaluations, and simulators had all been lumped on top of her decade and a half of US Navy submarine service. Yet the sensation of her ship being lowered on huge steel cables through a tunnel bored by fusion bombs turned her gut. Langston could not help but feel like she was one of her father’s roasts getting lowered into a boiling pot by cooking twine.

But such feelings of uneasiness had no place in the California’s Navigator, the most senior of the ship’s department heads. The last communications with the outside world had been received, and they would soon be in the lightless sea. Adjusting the black ballcap on her graying head and shifting in her scratchy brown submarine sweater, needed in the balmy sixty-degree control room, the officer pulled her eyes up to look at the control room’s front.

“Pilot,” Lieutenant Commander Langston began in her best Officer of the Deck voice, “lower all masts and antennas.”

“Lower all masts and antenna, aye, ma’am,” Chief Lawson mimicked, not looking away from her panel.

The pilot and copilot beside her would have had to turn all the way round in their comfortable leather station chairs to meet Langston’s gaze. The chief, FTC as she was known on the ship, had two decades of service leading fire control divisions on submarines. She was a skilled operator and leader in her own right, as was CSSCS Breyers next to her in the Co-Pilot chair. All of the crew on this mission were veterans, experienced operators of one of the last Virginia-class submarines still in service. This mission was a unique one, a chance to see another world while still conducting their trades.

And the bonus Astral-X had paid each of them would ensure they all retired as kings and queens, making the large submarine bonuses they had already received look like pocket change. How transporting a past-due for decommissioning US Navy submarine on an Astral-X freighter to a moon of Jupiter was the best solution to the problem at hand, Langston did not know. Perhaps it was a way to testbed further manned exploration of Ganymede, or perhaps advances in rocketry truly had made putting an 8,000-ton object into space a trivial affair. What Langston did know was that this was a mission of a lifetime. A mission that could not be trusted to drones. And it was a mission important enough to American commerce for the Navy to agree to.

The hull shuddered again and the Navigator felt a deceleration in their decent. She glanced to the back of control, the room crowded with watchstanders. Her eyes, though, locked on the two graying officers near the entrance to the space. Commanders Veicht and Shope stood silently, Deborah Veicht, the ship’s Executive Officer, leaned casually against a console while Jeffrey Shope, the Commanding Officer, stood peering over the large digital chart table. Langston knew the pair trusted her as OOD and Lieutenant Paul Sutter as Contact Manager. They would not say anything unless they needed to. Unless a decision needed to be made.

“Conn, maneuvering,” the 7MC speakers announced, “we have detected seawater in the main seawater system.”

“Maneuvering, conn, aye,” Langston stated into her keyed phone.

“Officer of the Deck,” the Pilot spoke up, “there is water entering all main ballast tanks. Standing by to trim the ship.”

All the calculations had been made again and again by naval architects and diving officers. There would be no time to float on the tiny circle of man-uncovered sea surface. As soon as the cables released, the ship would dive, a hint less than neutrally buoyant. Thirty minutes and twice as many reports later, Langston was ready. If she had had a free minute in those thirty, she would have removed her sweater. The sweat of stress had long since penetrated her navy-blue coveralls despite the chill air onboard.

“Sir,” Langston said, turning and stepping up to the CO and XO, “the ship is on the surface with all seawater intakes submerged. Dive comp has been entered and pre-startup complete. Ship has been rigged for dive, and Lieutenant Elliot has validated the modified rig for dive checklist. I intend to rig for reduced electrical, release cables with the surface station, dive the ship, and commence reactor startup.”

Commander Shope’s gray eyebrows and eyes steadily met Langston’s gaze, pausing as if for effect. But there would be no questions. This was the hundredth time they had done this evolution.

“Very well,” Shope said with a nod. The hundredth time, only this one was real.

A few barked orders, some over announcing circuits and some to the many watch standers in control, and they were truly ready.

“Pilot, sound the diving alarm, release all cables . . . and dive the ship.”

“Sound the diving alarm, release all cables, and dive the ship, aye, ma’am.”

From the mess decks to the torpedo room, from engine room lower level to maneuvering, the klaxon rang, “awooga, awooga!”

“Dive, dive!” Chief Lawson boldly stated over the 1MC. Unbidden and planned for, she added to the announcement, “that’s one small dive for a sub, one giant reenlistment bonus for this chief!”

Chuckles resounded from sonar, fire control, and navigation technicians, but Master Chief Gilbert, known as “COB” to the crew, gave Lawson a fiery look from where he loomed near the ship’s control station. Some words for the first American fast attack on a foreign moon.

“Pilot, make your depth 200 feet.”

The control room silenced as the sailors returned to their mission, Lawson repeating back the order and shifting her joystick to move water overboard and lower their depth.

The ship began to descend, the Pilot reading off depth soundings as they slowly drifted to their desired depth, the only power for the ship now coming from a slowly draining battery.

“Hovering at 200 feet, ma’am,” Lawson reported.

“Very well, Pilot,” Langston answered, then keying the 7MC, “maneuvering, conn, commence reactor startup.”

“Commence reactor startup, conn, maneuvering, aye,” echoed the voice of Lieutenant Palmer.

She was the most junior of the officers, almost sounding shaky, though still a PNEO graduate and highly rated from her division officer tour. And even if she did lack perfect confidence, Lieutenant Commander Delivour, ship’s Engineer, would be in maneuvering keeping a close eye on the Engineering Officer of the Watch and Reactor Operator.

Langston knew the order she had given to the Engine Room was now stirring dozens of sailors through a hundred different procedures as they hurried across decks covered in canned food. There were control rods to be withdrawn and steam systems to be started up. The reactor had been refueled for this mission; the new core was rated for 50 more years of service. USS California, SSN-781, would be here for the long haul, even if her crews rotated on and off more frequently.

“The reactor is critical,” Palmer’s voice resounded through the ship. A few minutes later, “shifting the electric plant to a normal full power lineup.”

Some of the tension in control melted away. The reactor was powering the vessel, and their precious battery could be recharged. Soon, the main engines were online, taking in huge amounts of fission heated steam through their throttles. With the order of “Ahead One Third,” the USS California was off on a foreign moon, humming silently towards its destination.

An illustration of the interior of Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede, based on theoretical models, in-situ observations by NASA’s Galileo orbiter, and NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope observations of the moon’s magnetosphere. (Photo by NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI))

“Sounding,” Langston ordered, a sailor behind her answering after a long pause with: “Sounding measures . . . sounding measures forty-five thousand and seven fathoms, ma’am.”

The Officer of the Deck had to chuckle at that report. Certainly, the deepest sounding this submarine had ever taken. A second and third sounding reported the immense depths were quickly growing shallower. They were on the right heading. Somewhere in the absolute darkness of Ganymede’s saline sea was a stone mountain that had penetrated up from the rocky mantle, up until it nearly reached the hexagonal ice surface of the moon. This mountain and what had already gotten to it were their mission’s purpose.

“Officer of the deck, a word.” It was the grave voice of Commander Veicht at her shoulder. Turning, Langston noted that the CO had left control, likely retiring to his adjacent stateroom while his vessel began the transit. The XO motioned Langston to the computerized screen of the chart table beside which she stood. “It appears we will be in the vicinity of the mining site in five hours.”

The OOD joined her, nodding. Two sailors manning the chart were making fixes off the soundings being reported, comparing them to their gyroscopic inertial navigation system to ensure it was tracking their position correctly. The luxury of a GPS fix was impossible in Ganymede’s lightless sea.

“I intend to conduct a sawtooth approach and slow to deploy the towed array once 30 miles from Mount Troy,” Langston explained. “If we’re gonna protect that dig-site, then we’ll do it properly.”

Veicht agreed. They had planned for all of this. That mountain piercing up nearly to the ice surface was named Mount Troy in recognition of Ganymede’s namesake’s homeland. It was not only the shallowest bit of rock on the moon but was also the site of the only naturally occurring deposit of Californium-252 in the solar system. It was this rare and extraordinarily valuable deposit, along with other veins of precious metals and fissile material, that had drawn Astral-X. Mount Troy was a perfect target for the American-based company’s drone-run mining projects.

Intelligence out of the People’s Republic of East Manchuria and it’s Tàikōng Kuàng or Tai-Kua Corps coinciding with a loss of communication with the mining site and several further drone attempts to investigate it had gotten the California into its current unique situation. The irony that USS California was there to investigate and protect a Californium mine was not lost on its crew.

“Muzzle doors opening! Bearing 295!” The surprised announcement came from the Sonar Supervisor, STS1 Antez. For an instant, there was stunned silence in control. The only explanation was that a submarine of the fighting sort was lurking somewhere out there.

Langeston’s mind raced. Could there really be another vessel here? Had Tai-Kua really beaten them to the punch and seized dominance over this new undersea domain? And if so, would they fire on a manned American submarine? Yet beneath Ganymede’s surface, what treaties would be followed by two corporate entities? There was no law in the lightless sea.

“Captain has the conn!” a firm voice bellowed, striding into control soundlessly. Commander Shope was a slender man, the bunny slippers worn at the base of his coveralls not adding anything to make him imposing. But in that moment, every man and woman in control knew who was in command. “Open all muzzle doors, make turns for four knots! COB, set silencing condition one!”

Quietly, the crew of USS California sprang into action. Sailors rushed in and out of control to make the CO’s orders so. The Sonar Supervisor began passing information from the left side of control to its right, working with Lieutenant Sutter to build a contact picture from the broadband noise detected. The row of sonar techs were busy murmuring to each other through the miked headphones they usually used to pass jokes. Now, though they furiously worked to classify the new contact. All across the ship, system settings were changed or equipment shut down as word passed to prepare for battle.

Langeston herself took station next to the captain at the center of the maelstrom. She still held the deck and meant to keep it as they moved to firing point procedures. If there truly was a Shinjen III class SSN out there meaning to put a heavyweight torpedo up their rear, as their intel had hinted at, then California would need every bit of luck and skill to survive. Shinjens were decades more modern than the American sub. California was built all the way back in the early 2000s. But the old American SSN had a few tricks up her sleeve the East Manchurian operators might not expect.

“Torpedo in the water!” a narrowband sonar operator shouted, his supervisor and officers rushing to look over his shoulders at the screen of green traces he manned.

There it was, a new trace of sound their passive sonar was detecting. A trace at the exact frequency of a Manchurian torpedo’s motor. And it was streaking to intercept them.

“Snapshot, tube three,” the CO ordered, moments later a heavyweight torpedo rushing out of their ship, the crew’s ears popping from the air pressure used to expel it. The weapon was reported as straight and normal, its lethal warhead rushing towards their phantom enemy.

Evasive orders were given, California’s steam turbine throttles opening as the ship surged forward. Within seconds, sonar reported detecting active sonar from the enemy torpedo. There was no nuance to this game of cat and mouse anymore. Both ships knew the other was there.

Sweat beaded on Langston’s neck, the same sweat she knew was pouring from every crewmember. Most of the sailors would have no idea what was happening, their supporting roles distant from control. Their lives were in the commanding room’s hands.

A hard rudder listed the ship over as they maneuvered wildly. Fire control reported their torpedo’s wire had broken. It was up to the weapon’s sensors and computer brain to find a mark now.

Thunder rumbled beneath the lightless sea. Their torpedo had homed on and struck the enemy’s. A slower speed was ordered, and control fell silent, sonar desperately seeking to regain contact on the other submarine. Both vessels were likely barely moving now, trying to stay as quiet as they could after each of their mad evasive dashes. They were like two blind gunmen in a giant room. The first to run or shoot blindly now might be shot in return.

No one made a noise. Sailors found themselves holding their breath for no reason. Control’s tension was palpable. Langeston wished she had deployed the towed array. If the dueling subs were blind men, her’s was the partly deaf of the pair.

“Torpedoes in the water! Bearing 050!”

“Gotcha,” Commander Shope murmured. “Snapshot tubes 1 and 2!”

Away went their weapons, hot, straight, and normal, off to bring doom to the enemy. But the enemy torpedoes were headed their way now too, shifting from their incorrect course back toward them as California fired. She had been heard.

“WEPS,” the CO said, gaining the attention of the burly lieutenant wearing a Lakers ballcap, “launch cells one, two, and three SUUVs.”

“Aye, sir!” This was the trick up California’s sleeve. There were twelve vertical launch cells in the ship’s forward ballasts, tubes that had once been meant to hold the positively ancient Tomahawk cruise missile. But now they carried the newly in service Mark 10 Small Undersea Unmanned Vehicle.

A series of whishing sounds preceded the report of the SUUVs being clear of the ship. Each VLS cell carried five of the small craft, their artificial intelligence downloading sonar data until the instant of their launch. SUUVs were a defensive measure, but they were far more than a simple noisemaking countermeasure. They were hunters and deceivers, a networked intelligence able to communicate by tight beams of high frequency sound. The fifteen craft would be spreading now like a net, expanding the scope of their unified sensors and emitters.

“Tripwire!” STS3 Gibbs, the most junior of the sonar techs shouted, “gain narrowband correlating to Virginia-class submarine down bearing 045!”

“Disregard tripwire,” the CO ordered. “That’s the SUUVs.”

Thunder boomed in the lightless sea, a Manchurian torpedo detonating as it took their bait. All eyes remained on sonar displays, though, as STS1 Antez made his next report. Another enemy torpedo’s noise had appeared, it maintaining a constant bearing to them as it closed and grew louder.

Thunder rumbled again in the lightless sea.

“Large explosion down 050. Breaking up noises!” Antez reported. Langeston let out a sigh of relief. Their quarry was no more.

“Regain torpedo in the water,” STS 1 continued, his voice calm despite the mortal situation they were in. The last torpedo still motored toward them. The SUUVs would be shifting, positioning themselves as if each surviving drone were a piece of equipment on their submarine. They would travel in an SSN-shaped formation, a perfect target for a hungry Manchurian torpedo.

“Loss of contact on torpedo,” Antez shouted. The weapon had shifted to electric power. All the California could do now was wait to see which target it pounced on. Wait and pray.

Thunder exploded in the lightless sea.

Silence pervaded Ganymede.

“Fire, fire in the drier lint trap,” a 4MC sounded. Langeston shook her head. They had survived the knife fight. But some things about submarining didn’t change, even in the lightless sea.

Lieutenant Jonathan French is a native of Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He attended the US Naval Academy, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Naval Architecture in 2016 before moving on to join the Naval Nuclear Power Program. After completing extensive nuclear power training, he served on the fast attack submarine USS California as the Electrical Officer, Assistant Weapons Officers, and Diving Officer, taking the ship through a EUCOM deployment and maintenance availability. He is currently serving as the nuclear power officer and assistant professor of naval science for Tulane University’s Navy ROTC program, educating and training future officers in the US Navy.  In his spare time, he is a father, writes articles for USNI, and is a graduate student at Tulane’s Freeman School of Business.

Featured Image: Art created with Midjourney AI.

Valiance

Fiction Contest Week

By Lieutenant Daniel Lee

            The harshly-lit wardroom stood nearly barren. It was hardly larger than a median-income living room and was mostly occupied by a long, rectangular table bolted to the deck and covered in a synthetic polymer mat. Empty chairs surrounded the table, affixed with spring swivels that kept them secure while allowing diners to sit and stand without interrupting the meals of those around them. A few shelves lined the wall—all securely bolted to nearby surfaces, of course—which contained a multitude of souvenirs and naval history books that hadn’t felt the touch of a human hand in years. One empty section of false bulkhead had a crest painted onto it. It was an unimaginative crest, one that probably shared many attributes with many others: a trident, a trio of stars, and a lion backed by a shield with the words “Liberty and Deliverance” written on a curling ribbon. Above the crest was “DGF-335,” and below it, in large font, “UNS ENDURING VALIANCE.”

            It was upon this crest that Sublieutenant Mark Lionel blankly stared as his mug slowly filled with the strongly aromatic black liquid that fueled sailors of the Union Navy. As an O-2, he didn’t know much, but he at least knew that the crest was designed by people who had run out of ideas after the 121st ship in class. His cynical thoughts were sharply interrupted by an intense burning sensation on his fingers as his mug overran. Although his vacuum-rated utility suit covered his hands, he still felt the intense heat from the liquid.

            A stream of curses escaped him as he put the mug down on the wardroom table and grabbed some napkins from a wall dispenser. Not a great start to the day, he thought as he mopped up what he could. Once he got most of it, he tossed the spent napkins into the vacuum tube for pulpable trash and downed his coffee as quickly as possible. Once the last drop passed his lips, he dropped the mug off in the scullery, grabbed his watch cover, and headed out.

            He maneuvered through the claustrophobic passageways with a vague familiarity. He had been on the same class of ship for his first tour, though it was of an older configuration. After dodging a number of electrical junction boxes and fire extinguishers along his path, he opened the final quick-access airtight door into control.

            “Control” was the general term assigned to the combined primary navigational and operational centers of the ship. The room was large, occupying a hefty portion of the center of the ship, and stood two decks high. The lower deck was the combat information center, or CIC, which served as the tactical heart of the ship, while the platform suspended over it was the bridge. The whole room was dimly lit by blue lights, giving everything an ethereal glow. Mark made sure his cover was on straight, located the Operations and Tactics Watch Officer, and gave him a quick and sloppy salute.

            “Permission to enter control?” he asked.

            The 32-year old lieutenant commander didn’t even bother taking his eyes off his tacscreen. “Enter,” he grumbled.

            Mark quickly clambered into the room and shut the door behind him. Looking across the vast field of holographic displays, control consoles, electrical equipment, and sleepy watchstanders, he located the ladderwell going up to the bridge. He made his way there, only waking up one operations specialist in the process, and climbed up onto the bridge.

            As soon as he stepped onto the platform, he felt as though he was transported into another realm. A large holographic dome enclosed the bridge and extended to just below the platform, blocking most of CIC from view. The dome was linked to an external network of cameras, giving the bridge a nearly uninterrupted hemispherical view of the vast starfield surrounding the vessel. It was almost as if he was standing outside in the cold vacuum of space despite being buried behind dozens of centimeters of armor within the heart of the ship.

            Amongst the vast starfield, there was a bright spot that stuck out. It was at this spot that the Deck Watch Officer, Lieutenant Hazel Arroyo-Erikson, focused her attention. She was a striking woman whose brown complexion was contrasted by a head of bright platinum hair that she swore was natural. With her mixed ancestry, Mark figured that might be true. Also, slightly to his chagrin, she stood a few centimeters taller than him.

            “Hey,” Mark spoke out as he approached.

            Hazel whipped her head around to face him, her short ponytail slapping her on the side of her face as she did so. She spat out a few hairs from the corners of her mouth before addressing him. “You’re late,” she scolded.

            “It’s a U/I watch for a requal. You give a shit?” he responded.

Hazel rolled her eyes and turned back to the console. “Tell that to the Hawk,” she muttered.

After coming to the conclusion that Hazel, in fact, did not give a shit, he announced to the watchstanders: “Attention in the bridge! This is Sublieutenant Lionel. I have the deck as under instruct.” A murmur of half-hearted acknowledgements came back.

            Now that his five-hour prison sentence on the bridge had begun, he found a nice, comfy console to lean on. The Valiance was doing what it had been doing for the past month: steaming with fellow destroyer UNS BRILLIANCE OUTSTANDING to provide advance screening for the carrier group. Currently they were investigating a thermal irregularity on a comet orbiting a black hole. It was standard operating procedure to investigate every anomaly within a three-lightyear radius of the carrier, and the admiral would be damned if a Union ship wasn’t going to follow SOP.

            It was at the black hole that Hazel directed her attention. The gravitational sinkhole was feasting on a red giant, and at the current distance the resulting accretion disc outshone all other stars in the sky. The massive amounts of ionizing radiation it spat out didn’t do sensors any favors either. As Hazel worked on a radar repeater, Mark leaned towards the conn, Ensign Tim Sietre, and murmured, “What’s she up to?”

            Tim, a bright-eyed athletic young man whose pearly teeth sharply stood out from his dark skin, chuckled. “I think she’s trying to clear up radar and lidar. I keep telling her environmentals ain’t having it, but she ain’t hearing it.”

            “Heh. Academy kids,” Mark snorted. “I used to date one on my last ship. Sometimes she would have her head so far up—” As he spoke, he spotted a short but authoritative middle-aged woman climb up the ladderwell onto the bridge. She had a gaunt face with a long, beak-like nose under a pair of sharp, ice-blue eyes. Some might compare her look to that of a hawk searching for prey. “Captain on the bridge!” Mark sharply proclaimed.

            Commander Victoria Hawkins took a seat at the captain’s chair near the center of the bridge and took a sip of what was probably unsweetened black coffee from her enclosed thermal mug. She looked up at Hazel as she approached and spared a cursory glance at Mark, who tailed close behind. “Give me an update, DWO,” she ordered Hazel in the gravelly voice of a woman who had smoked one too many cigarettes.

            “We’re about 10 minutes out from the comet, ma’am,” Hazel reported. She stated her intentions of matching velocity with the comet 1,000 kilometers from the surface.

            “Very well, Lieutenant. Carry on.” Hawkins leaned back and started browsing through holographic readouts of ship’s systems with her chair console. Sensing that his presence was no longer required, Mark returned to his duties.

            Within a few minutes, the Valiance and Brilliance cut their compression drives and slowed to match velocity with the comet as planned. Valiance launched its embarked gunboat, a G/A-17D Albatross, to aid in scouting around the comet.

            As Mark observed the ghostly plumes of melting water ice swirl off the comet’s surface like an early morning fog, he heard Lieutenant Cres Nillehn, the Albatross pilot, on the radio. “Warship 335, this is Heartburn, starting my push across the comet, over.”

            Hawkins rogered up using her suitcomm. “Keep us updated,” she advised.

            “Copy all, see ya on the other side. Heartburn out.”

            Mark leaned over to whisper into Tim’s ear. “Hey, do you know how Cres got his callsign?”

            Tim chuckled. “Heartburn? Oh, that’s a story. You see, this one time at aviator school—”

            He was interrupted by the radio. “Warship 335, Heartburn again. I just got six radar spikes coming up the horizon of the comet. Request confirmation, over.”

            Mark followed Hazel to the radar repeater. It was hard to determine against the large backwash of returns from the comet along with the increased background radiation, but he thought he could pick out a couple discrete but fuzzy dots. As Hazel called down to CIC for additional information, Mark continued scanning the screen. Maybe he was just tired, but he thought he found an additional radar return on the other side of the comet. He tapped Hazel’s shoulder. “DWO, back me up on this? I think I found something—”

            Mark was cut off by the loudest metallic bang he had heard in his life. The noise was accompanied by a violent reverberation in the deckplates that sent him tumbling forward across the repeater. His vision blackened and his ears were consumed by harsh ringing. It took him a good couple moments to regain his senses from the shock. Once he did and his surroundings came back into focus, he found it was getting harder to breathe. He soon found out why.

            A mere half meter behind where he had just been standing, he saw a melon-sized hole in the deck. The metal around the hole was mangled and curled upwards, as if something had blown through it at tremendous speed. He looked upward and saw a similarly sized hole in the holographic screen above. Pieces of debris floated around him in a bizarrely beautiful ballet of jagged shrapnel as air rushed out both holes.

            It’s floating? he thought. As his judgement returned, he realized that he, too, was floating. Why were the gravity fields off? Gradually, the ringing in his ears started to die down enough for him to make out a few muffled words around him. “Hull breach,” he heard, as well as something about “general quarters” and “counterfire.”

            “Mark!” He felt a hand grab him by the shoulder and shake him. “Mark, put this on!” He looked to the voice and saw Hazel handing him a self-contained breathing kit. Moreso out of training than any actual conscious thought, he activated his suit’s battledress function and put on the helmet and air tank in the kit. His normally loose uniform constricted around him, providing pressure on his body, while the breathing kit provided his head 0.8 atmospheres of oxygen-nitrogen gas.

            As soon as he put on the helmet, he was flooded with innumerable suit-to-suit comms and 1MC announcements aggressively talking over each other on the line. “This is the DCA from DC Central, I have assumed all duties and responsibilities—” began one announcement. It was cut off by someone in engineering: “Loss of 1 and 3 main fusion generators. Shifting the electric plant—” Even that was cut off by another in CIC. “Multiple torpedoes inbound, starboard ventral side. All hands brace for shock!”

            Mark pushed himself towards a railing and held on tightly. He saw a pair of sailors holding onto the railing next to him with one hand while holding onto the limp body of another sailor in the other. The limp sailor was surrounded by floating globules of what Mark could only presume to be blood emanating from the stump that used to be his right arm. Mark looked into the visor of the sailor and felt his breath catch in his throat. It was Tim. He looked unconscious. At least, he hoped he was only unconscious.

            “Torpedoes defeated with SIM-3, chaff, and Sentinel MIWS. All hands relax from brace.”

As soon as he heard those words, Mark rushed to Tim’s side. “Is he alive? Is he alright?” he demanded from the two sailors holding onto him. Before they could respond, he heard the captain’s voice in his helmet.

“Sublieutenant Lionel, take station as conn,” she calmly ordered from her chair.

“Y-yes, ma’am,” he stuttered, and watched as Tim was carried out of the bridge. He locked his magboots onto the deck, took a deep breath, and tried to stop his hands from shaking.

Hazel didn’t even seem fazed as she started barking out status reports. “Captain, we have six small craft coming off the comet’s horizon on our starboard bow at 2,200 kilometers as well as two small craft on the other side of the comet at 900 kilometers. Coilgun strike came from the group of two and took out two fusion generators and quantum communications. Compression drive and buffer shields are also down and we’re limited to standard acceleration.”

“Roger that DWO, maintain evasive maneuvers,” the captain answered, as calmly as ever. She keyed into the 1MC in her suit. “XO to control.” After switching circuits to CIC, she ordered, “OTWO, I want twenty halberds shot down a line of bearing at the group of six. Light up the two assholes off our starboard quarter with coils.” Once she had an acknowledgement, she opened a line to the gunboat. “Heartburn, this is the captain. We’ve lost quantum communications and our drive. Get your ass to the carrier and tell them to send help.” The pilot attempted to argue for staying to defend the ship, but to no avail. With an angry acknowledgement, the gunboat disappeared into a compression field. With that business concluded, the captain turned to Mark. “Conn, raise Brilliance and get a status report.”

Mark barked out a few more maneuvering orders to the helm then keyed into bridge-to-bridge. As he spoke, he could see multiple active-radar halberd torpedoes hot launch from Valiance’s orthogonal launch systems and shoot off towards the comet’s horizon. “Warship 297, this is Warship 335, over,” he yelled with more panic in his voice then he would’ve liked. Silence. He repeated his hail, to no avail. In frustration, he pushed himself over to the scopes and used the high magnification cameras to get visual on Brilliance. After a few moments of searching, he found it. It was completely dark and dead in space. There were multiple holes venting atmospheric gas across its surface.

“Captain, I…I don’t think Brilliance is with us,” Mark shakily reported.

“Damnit.” The captain keyed into the 1MC again. “XO to control,” she repeated, a slight frustration rising in her voice. “XO, where the hell are you?”

“OTWO to captain!” interjected an excited voice. “Intelligence indicates confirmed missile hits on tracks 0256 and 0257!”

            “Good,” the captain responded, a hint of malice lining her words. “Keep shooting until they stop shooting. You have permission to enable battleshort.”

            Mark continued giving maneuvering orders to the helm, maintaining a zigzagging pattern to prevent gun lock. Although the inertial dampers prevented him from feeling it, the ship was straining dozens of g’s with each course correction. Fortunately for Valiance, the two close contacts appeared to be using relatively low-velocity coilguns that were easier to dodge. Unfortunately for the two hostiles, Valiance’s coilguns shot at a full 0.1c.

            “Multiple hits on track 1275!” the OTWO announced. “They’re venting, dead in space.”

            A small cheer came up in the bridge. Maybe it was starting to go their way. Mark continued maneuvering and CIC continued firing. Despite several glancing blows, Valiance managed to avoid further direct hits. Within the next half hour, Valiance delivered a crippling coilgun hit to the remaining close contact and made one additional missile kill among the far contacts. Mark started thinking they might get through it.

Suddenly, half the lights and screens on the bridge went dark.

            “Fire, fire, fire, class charlie fire in 2S switchboard!” the DCA frantically announced.

            “Captain, we’ve lost power to our missile launch systems!” the OTWO bellowed. After a pause, he continued, “Hostile launch. We have twelve fisheyes, inbound!”

            Mark gulped. Fisheyes. Code name for electro-optically guided torpedoes. The only ways to defeat them were with hardkill measures. Seeing as they couldn’t launch any SIM-3 missiles and only had two Sentinels to shoot them down, the odds were set.

            They were going to die.

            Mark looked around him in the bridge. Hazel continued ordering the watchstanders as though nothing had changed. The helmsman frenetically operated his console while the navigator fought a minor electrical fire on a junction box. The captain sat in her chair, an eye of serenity in the hurricane of chaos around her. As he watched, she slowly got up off the chair.

            “Abandon—” she began.

            A crackle on the radio interrupted her. “Hey there, boys and girls! I’m back!”

            Mark watched the radar fill up with numerous signatures. On the few operating holographic screens remaining, he saw a beautiful sight. Dozens of Albatross gunboats streamed across the void like a swarm of angry hornets. He saw them release a stream of missiles that exploded with such brilliance it appeared as though several new stars had come into existence. Heartburn had come through for them.

            “Torpedoes defeated!” the OTWO yelled exuberantly. Cheering rang out in the suitcomms as the crew vocally expressed their relief.

The gunboats pushed on towards the three remaining hostiles. Mark could see on radar the hostiles’ relative velocity slow to zero, then turn in the other direction. “They’re…they’re retreating!” he yelled. Another cheer rang out.

Mark felt the weight of events push down on him as the adrenaline faded. He let go of the radar repeater and let his body just float in the zero g. It was over. Maybe they’d be back, but for now…it was over.          

Daniel Lee commissioned as a surface warfare officer, nuclear (SWO(N)) in 2016. He served on USS ASHLAND (LSD-48) out of Sasebo, Japan as first deck division officer. After qualifying in nuclear power school, he spent two years on USS GERALD R. FORD (CVN-78) in Norfolk, VA. He is currently in Newport working in the International Surface Warfare Officers school.

Featured Image: Art created with Midjourney AI.

Warfighting Second

Fiction Contest Week

By Lieutenant Jacob Rothstein, USN

Part I

“CONN, Radio, in receipt of flash message traffic. For CO’s Eyes Only. Routing to the Captain’s stateroom,” USS Seattle’s Radioman of the Watch announced over the 27MC.

“Radio, CONN, aye,” replied LTJG Michael Lee, the Officer of the Deck, without breaking concentration from his engineering study guide.

Lee looked up after hearing something that vaguely resembled a request to cross the CONN. He linked eyes with the Radioman of the Watch and nudged his head forward, granting him permission to cross the CONN. The Radioman of the Watch thanked Lee and continued to the CO’s stateroom. Lee returned to his engineering notes.

            “Officer of the Deck, the navigation plot is ready for your review,” the Quartermaster of the Watch informed Lee.

            Lee strolled over to the navigation plot in the back left corner of the control room for what he assumed was the 400th time this watch.

            Course 082. Speed 5 KTS. Depth 60 FT. Everything checked.

Seattle was headed east after an arduous six-month Western Pacific deployment. Their hard work wasn’t over yet, though. An Operational Reactors Safeguards Examination, ORSE for short, stood between the crew and their return to homeport. ORSE, a yearly inspection designed to assess a nuclear-powered warship’s ability to respond to engineering casualties and operate in accordance with naval nuclear power procedures, takes the entire crew’s dedication to successfully complete.

Although just a three-day inspection, the preparation for ORSE begins months in advance. Nuclear operators are required to be proficient in drills, their technical knowledge, and in their ability to operate the reactor plant and associated engineering spaces.

Inside his stateroom, CDR Joseph C. McIntosh read the message handed to him by Radioman of the Watch. Growing impatient, the Radioman of the Watch’s eyes started to wander. His eyes landed upon a picture of who he presumed to be CDR McIntosh at his wedding, many years ago. McIntosh’s younger self was almost unrecognizable to the Radioman of the Watch. His eyes were now sunken, his uniform at least two sizes larger. The remaining bits of his hair, now gray.

Finally, McIntosh completed his review of the message.

“That will be all,” he said, excusing the Radioman of the Watch from his stateroom.

McIntosh’s days as the CO of the Seattle were numbered. His relief was scheduled to arrive in two weeks, just days after the Seattle’s return to port. His Change of Command Ceremony would need to be pushed back now.

“Good morning warriors, this is your Captain speaking,” McIntosh said over the 1MC from his stateroom. “I just received some exciting news.”

The crew groaned. They knew what ‘exciting’ meant in this context.

“Our country needs our help,” McIntosh continued. “We’ve been redirected back to the west. The boss needs us near Taiwan in case anything comes up. Unfortunately, this means our return to home port will be delayed at least one month. I know many of you were looking forward to reuniting with your loved ones, but duty calls. All officers, muster in the wardroom in fifteen minutes. Carry on!”

A few sailors mumbled, “Carry on, aye Sir,” in response to the CO’s message, but most were silent.

“Helm, left ten degree rudder, steady course 280,” said Lee, correctly assuming the CO would want him to turn around.

Lee and the rest of the control room made preparations to descend from periscope depth as they returned to the west.

Part II

            “The good news is, we have another four weeks to prepare for ORSE,” McIntosh said to all of his officers with the exception of LTJG Lee and LTJG Vandors, his on-watch Officer of the Deck and Engineering Officer of the Watch, respectively.

            “Sir, we will enter our holding area in three-zero hours,” said the NAV referencing the chart pulled up on the computer screen for the CO to see.

            “Very well, NAV. ENG, what is your plan for engineering drills once we arrive?”

McIntosh’s attention was already back on ORSE.

            “Excuse me, Sir. Did you say drills?” asked WEPS, interrupting the CO.

            “Is that a problem, WEPS?” McIntosh asked rhetorically.

            “Sir, the PLA(N) intends to execute a huge exercise in the vicinity of Taiwan. There will be a tremendous amount of warship activity.”

            WEPS had a habit of answering rhetorical questions.

            “Do you have a recommendation for me WEPS? Or did you just want everyone to know that you read the news this morning?”

            “Sir, I recommend we do not conduct drills while in our hold box based on our proximity to PLA(N) assets.”

            “Very well, WEPS. I understand your recommendation and do not concur with it,” McIntosh said as he scanned the wardroom. “Does anyone else think drills are a bad idea?”

            Blank stares followed.

            “This back and forth with China over Taiwan has gone on for ages. I’ll be damned if you think I am going to let the crew sit in that operating box and wait for something to happen that’s NEVER going to happen. We need to stay focused on ORSE! ENG, I want to see a complete drill guide by tonight.” McIntosh said as he exited the wardroom.

Part III

            ENG and LTJG Lee, the boat’s Assistant Engineer, waited outside the CO’s stateroom. Lee was promoted to the Assistant Engineer position a few months prior. He was the clear choice for the job after he excelled during his engineering qualifications and assessments during his first 20-months on board the Seattle. McIntosh made it clear to Lee that the AENG position was one of great responsibility, a position that should not be taken lightly. Only the most competent Junior Officer could be trusted as the AENG.  

As the Assistant Engineer, Lee was in charge of the drill team. The Captain trusted him with the safe operation of the engine room and the reactor during drills. Additionally, his duties included compiling the drill critiques for the ORSE Board.

“Enter,” McIntosh said a few moments after ENG knocked on his door.

ENG and Lee entered the CO’s stateroom and presented him the list of engineering casualty drills scheduled for once the Seattle arrived on station.

            “ENG, why is there no single main engine drill?” questioned McIntosh as he flipped through the drill guide. “Did you not see the Nashville’s most recent ORSE report?”

            “I did. Yes Sir,” ENG said. “It’s just after talking it over with WEPS and XO, we all thought it would be best if we maintained both main engines in case of an emergency.”

            McIntosh slammed his desk with both hands and noise echoed throughout the boat’s forward compartment.

            “ENG! DID I NOT MAKE MYSELF CLEAR EARLIER?! THERE WILL NOT BE AN EMERGENCY! WE ARE GOING TO SIT A FEW DOZEN NAUTICAL MILES FROM TAIWAN FOR A FEW WEEKS AND THEN DO ORSE! WHAT DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND?”

            Unlike WEPS, ENG knew better than to answer a rhetorical question.

            McIntosh took a few moments to regain his composure before he continued.

            “Now please get me a drill guide with a loss of one main engine in it.”

            “Actually Sir, I have one right here. I brought it as a backup.”

            Lee handed the CO an additional drill guide.  

            “Excellent job, AENG.”

            A satisfied Lee cracked a smile. Surely this would go a long way on his next FITREP.

            This ORSE held significant weight for CDR McIntosh. It would be his final inspection as the CO of the Seattle. The Seattle had performed admirably during McIntosh’s tenure as captain. McIntosh’s crew twice received the yearly award for the best boat in the squadron, known as the Battle E award, and earned at least an Above Average on all engineering and combat inspections.

If the Seattle continued its unparalleled level of success on inspections, McIntosh would be all but guaranteed major command and eventually, a promotion to admiral. He would not let some Department Heads prevent his team from training simply because they were worried about Taiwan and the PLA(N).

Part IV

            “Drill team, muster in the wardroom,” announced Lee over the 1MC.

            After 30 hours of high speed transit the Seattle finally arrived in its new operating area. The Seattle conducted a short periscope depth trip to confirm their orders. The boat’s directions were simple, maintain in the assigned operating water with a high level of readiness and await further instructions. McIntosh could not think of a better way to maintain a high level of readiness than a drill set in preparation for OSRE.

            Lee checked his watch. Over 90 seconds passed since he announced the drill team meeting over the 1MC. WEPS was nowhere to be seen.

            “Messenger,” barked Lee. “Rack out the WEPS. Tell him to report to the control room to relieve the Officer of the Deck in accordance with our officer rotation plan for drills!”

            The drill brief would not start without Lee. He needed to verify the other drill monitors understood their roles during the simulated casualties.

            The sleepy-eyed WEPS walked into the control room and Lee proceeded to inform him of the conditions of the ship.

            “Everything is normal up here, WEPS. Sierra-seven-eight and Sierra-eight-zero are two distant merchants,” Lee said as he pointed to a mostly blank SONAR screen. “The engine room is ready to answer all bells, for now. I’ll be back in a few hours to relieve you.”

            “Attention, Helm, Dive, Quartermaster, the Weapons Officer has the deck and the CONN.”

            The three watchstanders acknowledged their new Officer of the Deck.

Part V

            The engine room watchstanders performed as expected during the drill set. McIntosh, ENG, and Lee were pleased. Their team took the appropriate actions for a loss of reactor power, fire in a vital ship’s component, and loss of one main engine.

            “CONN, Maneuvering, drill set complete,” the Engineering Officer of the Watch said over the 7MC to the Officer of the Deck.

            “Maneuvering, CONN, aye. Maneuvering, CONN, restore the port main engine.”

            WEPS’ focus remained on maximizing propulsion.

            The Engineering Officer of the Watch reported back WEPS’ order, but had other ideas.

            “CONN, Maneuvering, intend to maintain single main engine in order to complete a clean and inspect of the port main engine.”

            “Maneuvering, CONN, restore the port main engine.”

            Before the Engineering Officer of the Watch could reply, CDR McIntosh arrived on the CONN.

            “WEPS! What is wrong with you?!”

McIntosh heard the conversation over the open microphone in his stateroom.

Without allowing WEPS an opportunity to answer his most recent rhetorical question, McIntosh continued, “the clean and inspect needs to happen. We’ll survive a few hours limited to half speed. Authorize the clean and inspect.”

“Authorize the clean and inspect, aye Sir.”

WEPS gave up trying to rationalize the Captain’s decision any further.

Part VI

            Lee finally arrived back in the control room to relieve as Officer of the Deck after he complied the drill feedback forms.

            “Sorry I’m late WEPS.”

            “It’s fine,” lied WEPS. “No new SONAR contacts. We’re limited to 50% power due to the port main engine clean and inspect. Do you have any questions?”

            “I have no questions, I relieve you of the deck and the CONN. Attention, Helm, Dive, Quartermaster, AENG has the deck and the CONN,” Lee announced to his watch team.

Part VII

            The remaining two hours of Lee’s watch were uneventful. Exactly what he needed, some time to brush up on his ORSE Level of Knowledge.

            “Officer of the Deck, the navigation plot is ready for your review.”

            Lee glanced at the quartermaster. Again? He reluctantly glanced at VMS and signed his review page.

            “Can I go back to studying now?”

            Lee learned how to ask a rhetorical question by observing the CO for nearly two years.

            The quartermaster forced a half smile.

            “CONN, SONAR, gained new surface contact, Sierra-nine-nine, bearing-two-two-zero,” the SONAR Supervisor said over the 27MC.

            “SONAR, CONN, aye,” acknowledged Lee.

            “SONAR, CONN, Sierra-nine-nine updated classification PLA(N) warship.”

            WEPS heard the report over the open microphone in the wardroom and headed to the control room, Lee would likely need his help. He arrived to discover an uncomfortable situation.

            The PLA(N) warship would approach as close as 10 KYDS in eight minutes if the Seattle did not maneuver. Fortunately for the Seattle, there was still time to open range.

            Seconds away from recommending a maneuver to the Officer of the Deck, WEPS saw a bright green trace emerge from Sierra-nine-nine. The SONAR Supervisor’s following report only confirmed what he already knew.

            “CONN, SONAR, torpedo in the water bearing two-two-zero!”

            Lee didn’t move. He hadn’t studied the actions for torpedo evasion since the day before his Fish Board. He knew every immediate action for an engine room casualty, but failed to remember his actions for an incoming torpedo.

            “Attention, Helm, Dive, Quartermaster, WEPS has the CONN, AENG retains the Deck!”

WEPS took control of the ship’s depth, course, speed, and weapons systems.

            CDR McIntosh arrived on the CONN just in time to supervise WEPS’ actions.

            “Torpedo Evasion! Helm, All Ahead Flank cavitate! Right full rudder steady course north! Launch countermeasures!” WEPS’ orders would alert the crew, increase to maximum speed, turn away from the torpedo, and launch decoys to distract the incoming torpedo.

            The Helm acknowledged WEPS’ order and manipulated the Engine Ordered Telegraph to alert the engine room for their immediate need for speed.

            “CONN, SONAR, torpedo range 2,000 YDS!”

            WEPS needed speed and he need it now. The launched decoys would only confuse the torpedo for so long.

            “CONN, Maneuvering, maximum bell All Ahead Standard. The port main engine is down for a clean and inspect.”

            “Maneuvering, CONN, aye. Maneuvering, CONN, emergency restore the port main engine!”

            WEPS knew it would take too long to restore the port main engine, but he at least had to try.

            CDR McIntosh was unfazed, certain he could find a way out of this.

            “WEPS, launch two more set of countermeasures, commence emergency evasive maneuvers.”

            WEPS acknowledged the CO and directed his team to deploy additional sets of countermeasures.

            “Helm, All Ahead Standard. Left Full Rudder. Dive make your depth 100 FT.”

            “CONN, SONAR, torpedo range 1,500 YDS.”

            The decoys would only distract the torpedo for so long. And without maximum speed, outrunning the torpedo would be nearly impossible.

            “CONN, SONAR, torpedo range 1,000 YDS.”

            The drastic course and depth change did not work.

            “CONN, SONAR, torpedo range 500 YDS.”

            One by one the watchstanders realized their fate was sealed.

            “CONN, SONAR, torpedo range 200 YDS.”

            CDR McIntosh’s last words etched into the minds of his control room watchstanders forever.

            “If only I had put Warfighting First.”

LT Jacob Rothstein graduated from the Naval Academy with the great class of 2016. After two years of studying nuclear power in Charleston, Jacob reported to the USS Annapolis (SSN-760) in San Diego. During his three-year tour he completed two WESTPAC Deployments and made enough friends and memories to last a lifetime. Now on shore tour in San Diego, Jacob lives with his partner Rachel and a rotating cast of foster dogs. Jacob spends his free time writing, playing volleyball, and stressing over the Padres. You can read more of his work on his blog The Subpar Group

Featured Image: Art created with Midjourney AI.

Puddle Jumpers

Fiction Contest Week

By Kevin P. Smith

“Fly low, fly fast, get paid.”

Pops’ words rang through my head, in tune with the sound of my left wing clipping the radar off the top of a Chinese fishing vessel. We were so low I could see the fishermen’s faces yelling at us a few choice words in Mandarin.

Better than taking an Exocet up the gut, I thought. On cue, a white streak crossed on my starboard, the low-flying missile flying past, barely missing my right wing. Thankfully, they’re designed to hit ships moving through the water, not planes flying just above the surface.

Plane is a generous word for the vessel I currently piloted. A wing-in-ground effect, or ground effect vehicle, or just GEV, stays just above the water, airfoils still touching H2O, using the forces of physics to move faster than any other vessel not fully airborne. Being a ground-effect vehicle, the Flying Fish isn’t much different from the sea-skimmer missile. They even share the same name, just different languages.

My girl bucked as its airfoil reconnected with the water. GEVs are designed to skirt over shallows, mines, and torpedoes. What they are not designed to do is fly, and landings are a no-no. I’d prefer not to, except I had to lift off to jump the blockade of Chinese fishing boats surrounding the lagoon.

In mid-air, just above the island canopy surrounding the lagoon, I sighted a white hull on the horizon. Five racing stripes, four small blue and one large orange, meant Coast Guard. Specifically, Chinese People’s Armed Police Force Coast Guard Corps.

What a mouthful. We just called them by their pinjin name, Haijing. Legal arguments that CG shouldn’t be out this far from their Economic Exclusion Zone fell apart with that persuasive ballistic counterargument. A warhead coming at you near Mach One merits a pretty strong objection.  

Reconnecting with the surface, the bump coincided with two shouts – Din, our mechanic, from down below in the engines, Pops above manning the fifty calibers. Guns along the fuselage are not the most aerodynamic, but necessary since the South China Sea became an armed lake.

Bangs reverberating against the metal combined in my head with potshots from our top gunner, confirming its value. Din yelled from below at Pops in his native language, though I didn’t need translating to understand the universal language of ‘GET DOWN.’

We didn’t know our jack-of-all trades’ mechanic’s actual name, so Pops just called him Gunga Din. Yes, like the movie. When I pointed out how politically incorrect that was, Pops had a few choice things to say. So I changed the subject, and we just agreed to call him Din.

Once over the blockade, the crystal-clear waters of the lagoon lapping onto the beach invited us in. Nice place to visit and get lost with a special someone. But I knew if we didn’t get out of there quickly, we’d probably never leave.

Right on cue, our rendezvous came out of the jungle to meet us. He sauntered down to the water, looking like a man on a leisure trip. Except for the full BDU’s, rifle across his chest, and the covering team pointing man portable AShM’s at the blockade, it was a day at the beach.

I grabbed the comms mike and flipped over to ALL.

“This is your captain speaking. We have reached our cruising altitude of no turning back now. Please fasten your seatbelts and hold on to your butts.”

Too bad we didn’t have a drink cart. Although I probably could stand to cut some bad habits out. Especially considering the reason I sat here was the result of one of our brilliant ideas we came up with over too many drinks.

Like all great enterprises, ours started in a bar. Our usual spot, called the Scuttlebutt, was the one Pops had found me in years ago when I pulled chocks and split from the mainland.

Pops had hustled for a long time. Now he worked in the only industry left that made money – selling luxury goods to rich people with bad taste. His latest scheme? Wing-In-Ground effect planes.

“I’m telling you, Garcia,” he said one night, pushing his cons harder than usual. “It’s no different from a SOC-R. Except you can carry cargo at high speeds across large bodies of water, at a fraction of the cost of fuel!”

We were the usual ex-pat crowd: burnouts, dropouts, ex-military, retirees, all brought together by our lack of ability to adapt to a modern society. The place we hung out claimed to have been founded in World War II by a Marine that left home as a kid and never came back, in more ways than one.

The bar even claimed it served its own classic recipe, called the Brunei Breeze. I thought they were just knockoff Singapore Slings with jacked up prices for the tourists.

Pops didn’t mind. He wore a bucket hat and Hawaiian shirts as loud as the drinks he ordered.

“I’m not going to run illegal stuff for the criminals,” I said, taking another sip of my beer. I preferred things simple, drinks with few additions, and clothes that didn’t catch the eye. And I wanted to at least preserve the last shred of morality I had left.

“Find me a legit job, and maybe we’ll talk,” I said, thinking the conversation done.

Pop’s eyes lit up. I didn’t like it when he did that. Meant he had something up his sleeve. He left the room.

I tried to call over the bartender. She gave me a look from over the slammed bar. Meant it was probably going to take a while. I decided to amuse myself by watching the news.

The main story covered the only story worth covering these days – the war.

The war started as all blow-ups do – somewhere else. A confrontation in Africa over mineral rights became a shouting match between the American and Chinese halls of power. A bit of saber-rattling for good measure, except this time, cooler heads didn’t prevail.

Before anyone knew it, China declared their seas closed to all except unarmed merchants, which would be subject to search, especially those of certain nations ‘disruptive to the peace.’ By their seas, they of course meant everything within the nine-dash line, whether or not they legally owned it. The courts lost their minds.

But I’m a student of history. Paraphrasing, as a belligerent man once said, “he has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”

The US balked. Declaring Freedom of Navigation, the Navy sent the fleet forward. War drums beat, ships moved towards the Far East. The Chinese, in retaliation, made good on their threat to invade Taiwan. Said it was time to claim their historical destiny.

Then, a funny thing happened. As any student of history knows, destiny loves chaos. And she doesn’t pick sides.

First, OPTEMPO finally caught up with Navy. Half the fleet got caught in dry-dock, Iran picked the same moment to start a dustup with Saudi Arabia, and the only ships available were already two years into a ten-month deployment.

Then, on the eve of the grand invasion of Taiwan, a massive freak storm blew into the strait. No fool would take the risk. But rather than having to explain to their superiors why they were delayed, the fleet went anyway.

Like the Mongols at Tsushima, half the invasion fleet swamped ashore, and the world got to see what would have happened at Normandy if Rommel received orders to send forward the Panzer divisions.  

The higher-ups in Beijing made a big stink, claiming the US weaponized the weather. Go figure. Climatologists put the blame on rising temperatures from CO2. Biggest contributor? China.

What’s the Chinese word for irony? Don’t bother looking it up – it’s right next to gullible. Whatever floats your armada, or doesn’t.

By that point, like the best quagmires, both sides had gone too far and acquired too many sunken costs, literally in this case. They refused to pull out while saving face, but wouldn’t go far enough to justify further escalation.

Not that hostilities ended. The US Navy, for lack of available force, chose not to enter within range of Chinese ballistic missiles. In return, they set up a blockade at the Straits of Malacca and the Philippine Sea, with the Quad watching the flanks.

The war plan became simple, for both sides: No one in. No one out.

But the commercial needs of one billion people don’t shut off just because the shipping lanes become contested. And the grey area of the embargo attracted a certain brand of entrepreneur.

Everyone who had a vessel that could carry, launch, or dump was either enlisted by one side, or could make a pretty penny working both. It became a boat war. Not between destroyers and aircraft carriers, but fishing vessels, skiffs, anything that could move fast and keep a low profile.

Because of that, the Scuttle became the hive for all westerners looking to get in on the action. Our sleepy tavern filled with NGOs, spooks, soldiers of fortune, and actual gosh-darn privateers. Hence why it was so hard to get a drink.

Real Casablanca stuff. All we needed was Ingrid Bergman.

So of course, she walked in.

Pops introduced her. No ID. No calling cards. No handshake. And an unmarked suitcase with a wireless computer inside, showcasing enough untraceable crypto in any Asian market to buy up the bar. Really live my Humphrey Bogart dreams.

Of course, I was in love.

“This the guy?” she said, disapprovingly.

Pops patted me on the shoulders.

“If you need something moved under the radar, I’m telling you, we’re your guys.”

I gave Pops a look that said, We?

She appeared to stare right through me, though she never took off her sunglasses. She finally spoke.

“Which side do you support? China or US?”

“All money’s good,” I responded. “But I prefer green Benjamin to red Mao. You?”

She side-eyed me for a second. The waitress brought over my drink. Before I could react, my guest grabbed the bottle, taking a sip.

I looked at Pops. He shrugged. Reaching into my pocket, with a sigh, I placed some bills on the now empty tray.

Leaning in, she started to talk.

As she explained, a unique Marine Raider unit was moving up the island chain and needed a resupply. They were called a ‘light artillery mobile interdiction force.’ Whatever that word salad means.

Basically, rather than having an entire amphibious corps take one island at a time, multiple divisions swarmed over as many islands as possible.

The light artillery mobile interdiction mission was simple. Move quick, launch mines and loitering ordinance, leave behind autonomous launchers and other nastiness, and get the heck out of dodge before the island got schwacked. Real fire and maneuver doctrine. WWII island hopping on steroids.

There were two areas where the Marines were most vulnerable. On open sea, and having to stop for resupply, all while playing cat and mouse with a posse of small boats.

On this one particular harbor, the grey navy of Chinese fishing vessels caught up to them, blocking the entrance to the lagoon midway through the island with the most likely area of ingress for replenishment. No boats in. No room for aircraft.

But, perhaps, something that skimmed between them?

Pop’s smile shows me he had planned this one out. I thought through the logistics in my head.

“We need a flight engineer, a gunner, and a mechanic. You think you can find three guys crazy enough to go on the most dangerous beer run ever?”

Pops winked.

“I got one. He’s all you need.”

***

Back in the cockpit, Din moved in a flurry of activity. I watched him wound down the engines. Hustling into the back, he worked the rear controls, lowering the rear cargo door onto the beach. I thought about the bravado to actually undertake a crazy task like this. Didn’t seem to bother Din in the slightest.

The guys back at the Scuttle had affectionately christened us Puddle Jumpers. We considered ourselves adventurers, fortune-seekers, thrill seekers. But those who actually had to fight the war called us something different.

“How’s it going, pond scum?” said the Marine Corporal meeting us on the beach. I noticed he couldn’t have been older than my son’s age. Got me thinking about the home I’d left behind. Wonder if he’d get the innate family urge to serve. Wonder if I’d see him out here.

I lowered the cargo off the back and onto the treaded cargo hauler. Without a word, the rugged drone scurried off the beach and into the jungle.

“One load of ammo, water, fuel, as ordered.”

I held out my phone. The corporal flashed the QR code. With a few bits of data, I had it made. My elation was not met by the Marine. I tried levity.

“Easiest government transaction I ever made.”

“In a war zone, the FAR is just a suggestion,” he quipped.

“Hey, Garcia?” came a familiar gruff voice from behind.

Pops stumbled out of the GEV. Din carried him out. Pops held his side, a wet red liquid appearing in his hand. He gave me a weak smile.

“Flesh wound.”

I looked around the lagoon, trying to figure out the fastest egress. I shook my head.

“We can’t make it back in time, not with that patrol out there.”

The Marine stepped forward, taking Pops under his other arm.

“We’ve got a corpsman at the north of the island,” he said. “But he’d have to come with us.”

I didn’t want to leave Pops behind. But I had to make the command decision. To my surprise, it came from an unexpected source.

“Put him with you,” Din said to the Corporal. He motioned back and forth with me. “We fly out.”

“You speak English?” I said.

He shot me a look like I asked a dumb question. Which, sure, but I didn’t exactly have time for cultural sensitivity at the moment. I let Pops limp into the bush on the Marine’s shoulder. He would go with the raiders to the next rendezvous point.

Entering the jungle, Pops’ looked back at me. Not for the last time, I hoped.

“We’ll find you,” I said. “You better hang on, old man.”

Back in the cockpit, I weighed our options as the engines spun up. Nothing left but choosing the best of the bad ones.

Going over the island would put us out of range of the Exocet and straight into a SAM. Back over the boats would risk running into the Haijing.

As I looked to the east, the blockade ended around a group of shifting shoals. Extremely dangerous to cross. One wrong rock formation and we’d be in the drink. But a fog bank lay just beyond, and no boat would dare go in there.

We’d fight the shoals.

Din took the co-pilot seat. He nudged forward the engines. We’d start back at the beach, then get up to speed. As we left the safety of the lagoon, commotion stirred up in the grey navy, coinciding with a speeding bullet off our port side. We bared down on the shoals.

“You better be right, Pops,” I grunted.

Entering the rocks, I tried to maneuver, but the ever-changing tide and terrain made it no more than a hail mary.

Another Exocet went by. I gave it all she had.

We cleared the shoals.

“We did it!” I cheered, punching Din’s shoulder.

The loud crack and airfoil buckling argued otherwise. I pulled up, pressing on the pedals to keep the left side elevated. Pulling too hard, the vehicle lifted off. I leveled off, then pushed down to increase speed.

 “Go for the fog! Go for the fog!” I said, mostly to myself.

The terrain disappeared into a cloud of gray. The GEV bucked forwarded. First, I saw the white of the sky. Just as quickly, blue came up to meet us.

“Brace!”

Hours later, the overturned Flying Fish had somehow managed to stay above water. Din and I sat back to back on the wing. Every hour we floated, the two of us pushed closer, the amount of space available disappearing.

I tried to think of something to say. I realized this was the first time we’d actually had a real conversation.

“You never told me you speak English,” I said, breaking the silence.

“You never asked,” he said.

I asked the only thing I could think to ask.

“So…what’s your name?”

“Nicolos.”

I had to laugh.

“Patron saint of sailors. So, what happens now?”

Nicolos didn’t take his eye off the fog bank.

“Fishermen find us, probably shoot us. Chinese, hang us as Yankee pirates.”

“Yankee pirates. I like that. Yarr…”

We both heard movement through the water. A boat appeared in the fog. A trimaran.

A grey hull pushed towards us. On the top, colors stuck out. As well as a familiar voice.

“Look what I found, chuckleheads!”

The LCS came alongside us, with Pops on board, all bandaged up.

The crew let down a ladder over the side. I came onboard, shaking the hand of the Lieutenant in charge.

“Us unwanted stepchildren need to stick together,” he said.

Later, the three of us stood on the forecastle, amazed at our fortune.

“So, what now Garcia?” asked Pops.

“Thinking of investing in a business,” I said. “Know where I can find a GEV broker?”

Kevin Smith is a former naval aviator. He has pent the last decade living and working at NAS Patuxent River, MD. He is currently working on a historical fiction adventure novel about the New Orleans pirate King Jean Lafitte.

Featured Image: Art created with Midjourney AI.