Category Archives: Fiction Contest Week


Fiction Contest Week

By Lieutenant Commander Jon Paris 

Present Day

“Right full rudder. All engines ahead, Flank Three!”

              Jet engines spooled.

Hands shot to the steel cable running overhead, taking a death-grip.

              The lieutenant junior grade looked over her shoulder. With a wry smile, she quipped to her Sailors, “Hold on to your butts.”

              The ship heeled to port. They shifted their weight, eyes focused on the thermal camera.

An arm reached out to the bitch-box.

              “Combat, Captain. Warship, ten to port, 3000 yards. Ten rounds SWARM, batteries released!”

              Four seconds. Then, a BOOM.

The five-inch Surface Warfare Advanced Robotics Munition zoomed down-range towards its target. The Navy designed the rounds for up-close use in a communications-denied environment. They housed four small artificial intelligence-powered charges – flying baked potatoes, as the Sailors called them.

Each sub-munition contained a shot-gun blast of 88 micro-bots. Like a swarm of locusts, they feasted on radars, antennae, and fragile topside weapons. They homed-in on radiated energy, heat, and communications frequencies. Sharp claws latched onto their prey before the bots blossomed into a combined high-explosive and electromagnetic blast, snuffing out the ability to see, speak, and fight.

Not bad for a potato.

Flashes in the distance lit up the night. The camera showed a smoking frigate.


A Sailor growled, “Fear the Kraken!”

The young lieutenant slowed the ship and turned east. Shaking off exhaustion, she offered a sing-song, “Next, please.”

400 miles astern, an island suffocated in ash.

Three Days Ago

            Grace awoke with a start. Curtains drawn, her room was pitch black. Four fifty-eight in the morning. Two minutes before her alarm.


She glanced at her phone and saw an alert:

“State of Hawaii: Ballistic Missile Threats Inbound! Take Deep Shelter Immediately! Civil Collapse Imminent! This Is Not A Drill!”

              Grace’s high-rise condo shuddered and swayed. What the hell?

A hymn filtered from her TV.

She sat transfixed by the grainy image of an old-fashioned military band playing a mournful tune. When the music stopped, the screen turned to color bars.

Grace rushed onto her balcony. Fireballs crossed the horizon, shrieking like banshees. They raced over the nearby beach and slammed into the sleeping city.

A massive blast echoed through her neighborhood. The shockwave knocked Grace off balance, and she tumbled towards the edge – saved by a wobbly railing. Steadying herself, she watched in horror as the upper floors of a skyscraper avalanched onto the quiet streets below. Fire flickered off the low overcast.

Amidst the madness, an unexpected period of hyper-clarity. Sounds of destruction muffled. A naval professional, she worked the problem in a moment of Zen.

DF-30s, Grace observed. The only conventional missiles able to reach the Islands. We dodged a bullet, she thought sardonically. At least they’re not DF-41s…

A tremendous flash.

Blindness, fading quickly.

A mushroom cloud emerged from the mountains. Another one rose from the sea.

Never mind.

Damn it.


              Tsunami sirens wailed and sputtered.

Well, air raid sirens, really.

Grace’s soot-covered Fiat weaved through apocalyptic destruction. Buildings lay flattened into rubble. Deep craters marred every street. She absorbed nightmares in slow-motion. Burning vehicles with drivers visible through flames. Live power lines slithering and hissing like angry cobras. A bus stop awash in a soupy heap of pulverized bodies and fluids.


Where am I going?

On autopilot, the junior officer drove in a zombified state. Her subconscious clocked the emergency broadcast system screeching from the car’s speakers. After thirty minutes weaving through gore, Grace rolled past an abandoned gate and into a noxious haze. Pearl Harbor was on fire.

She crept down the waterfront. A submarine’s propeller jutted out of the harbor and another boat wallowed on its side. A cruiser’s main mast pierced the roof of a nearby McDonald’s. Camouflaged corpses littered a crosswalk. Six ships stood damaged and sinking on the sea wall. Another drifted in the harbor. Total devastation.

Her ship – somehow – remained intact.

Grace rushed onto the quay and up the brow.

Survivors from the duty section stood topside in knots. They coalesced and stared.

Grace noted their expectant faces. “Where is the CO? The XO? The CDO?”

A Senior Chief swept her arm at the surrounding hellscape. “Dead, like everyone else. You’re the first person we’ve seen come onto the base.”

Grace was a woman of action. The crew – her crew – needed orders.

She locked onto an engineer. “Chief, place all Mains online and roll shafts. On the double!”

“Aye, aye, ma’am!”

To another – “Boats, grab some axes. Cut these lines.”

To the group – “We’re the last of the Pineapple Fleet. Station the sea and anchor detail. Let’s get the hell out of here.”


The destroyer slid down the channel. The ship’s senior surviving officer supervised two Sailors pilot the ship into the Pacific. Pillars of smoke marked Honolulu. The mushroom clouds loomed menacingly.

 What do I do now?

Only one answer: fight.

Present Day

Scuffed black boots rested on a teak rail. Grace’s bloodshot eyes took in the sea as she leaned back in the Captain’s chair.

“…that’s the thing, there is no COP! No imagery, no communications. No intelligence or reachback support. It’s all dark. Nothing left. We are the Navy. The crew is exhausted. No rest. No relief. No mission. No hope! They want to go home. What are we doing out here?”

Grace stared straight ahead and snarled back, “What are we doing out here, Captain.

She shifted in her chair and scowled. “Senior Chief, there is no home. They nuked us.”

She shook her head, frustrated.

What are we doing out here?” Grace gestured to the sea.

“Gee, Senior, what do you think? Dammit – we are independent steaming with a crew of 35 facing an enemy who wiped out our country. We’re going to die out here. I’d like to get in a few punches before we’re through.”

The Captain leaned forward and pressed fingers into her temples.

“I’m 25 years old, I am tired, and I don’t want to die. But we witnessed The End! It’s over. Let’s go down fighting, eh?” She sat up with palms on her knees. “We need answers. We’re going to find the enemy and shoot until we’re Winchester – or dead.”

Senior Chief stood with her arms crossed and raised an eyebrow at the young officer. “Well… Captain. You won’t get much from this crew if you tell them the world is over.” She pointed into the bridge at the 1MC general announcing system. “After you, ma’am.”

Grace took a beat and then brushed past her senior enlisted leader.

“Team Kraken, Captain here. I wish I had better news. None of us ever imagined we would see Doomsday, but here we are. They attacked our country. Unprovoked and overwhelming. Death on an unprecedented scale. The End of all we know and love.”

She paused, then gulped.

“You 35 survived – to fight! The enemy is out here – I know it! I offer one thing: revenge! Our country won’t burn in vain. It is a terrible thing, but our families are gone. Today, we fight for their memory. And for each other! We will do our part – kill the enemy. Our final act. Harness your courage. Stoke the fires of hate in your hearts. Sail with me into the last pages of human history. Fear the Kraken!”

Grace un-clicked the 1MC mic and stared at her Senior Chief. “Time for work.”


              The blue lights cast an other-worldly glow over the group huddled around a glass-top table in the Combat Information Center.

              “Ma’am, last night we were dark and silent. We got lucky by stumbling into their blind spot. Today we stalk them… then kill them.”

              The speaker was two years younger than Grace, but the Captain had aged decades since leaving port. She side-eyed the Electronic Warfare Officer, “SLQopters?”

The ensign tapped his knuckles twice on the table. An impish grin, “SLQopters, ma’am.”

The SLQopter brought a revolution in the supremacy of electronic warfare at sea. Built off the frame of a commercial quadcopter, it was solar and wind powered. Along with an AI mission computer, it carried the newest SLQ-32(V)8 sensor – the size of a hard-cover novel. The SQL-32(V)8 EW Suite detected and categorized electronic emissions. Radars. Each ship carried three SLQopters, facilitating long-range electronic surveillance and, when integrated with the destroyer’s onboard suite, precision location and targeting.

Game. Changer.

“Ok, Team. Flight quarters in one hour. We’re going to unleash our tentacles and see what we wrap up.”

The assembled crew milled about. No enthusiasm. Grace pursed her lips and continued, “…it won’t be a surprise this time. They’ll see the attack coming… and where it came from. I expect a response.”

To her Senior Chief, “If we live to see sunrise, I’ll take your recommendation and sail to Alaska –  somewhere like that. If not – at least we’ll have gone down like Kraken.”


              Her fingers tapped a code on the cypher-lock. A loud click. She pushed through the heavy door into a dark alcove. The crew’s only rated-communicator sat slumped over his keyboard. A desk lamp cast his shadow along the bulkhead.

The Captain shook his shoulder.

              The young petty officer startled. He could not meet Grace’s eyes.

“Ma’am, I’ve been trying. Twice an hour, every hour. Over SATCOM and secure email. Nothing. No answer. I… I think we’re it, Captain.”

He choked back sobs.

              Grace glanced at the green logbook on the desk and at the computer screen. Both showed the same repeated entry:

“Third Fleet, this is Kraken. Island of Oahu attacked in massive conventional/nuclear strike. Pearl Harbor destroyed. 36 Kraken crew only survivors. Underway Middle Pacific hunting prc warships. No communication with friendly forces. USS Kraken assumed last remaining. Request assistance, orders, and nearest safe harbor. Standing by this net, out.”

              Disappointment, but not surprise.

If they nuked Hawaii, they nuked San Diego, Norfolk, and Washington – probably Annapolis. Her home in New York City. Probably a dozen Chinese cities. Europe, too? She supposed it didn’t matter much with fallout.

Of course there was no response.

Knees weak – Grace felt alone.

Wiping her face with the sleeves of her coveralls, she offered the Communicator a chuck on the shoulder. She walked out and heard his next futile transmission:

Third Fleet, this is Kraken…”


              Grace hunched over the tabletop in on the port side of the Combat Information Center. A hologram of the EW battlespace projected over the station. She watched the SLQopters flit about like dragonflies over the horizon. The system was passive. The SLQcopters executed their own program and reported back when they sniffed out prey.

              The EW Officer sat at a nearby console. With eyes closed, he listened intently to his headset. His fist popped up as a straight blue line materialized out of the southern-most SLQcopter’s symbol. “Dash One, contact. Dragon Eye, bearing 320 True.”

The news electrified the watch team in CIC. A Dragon Eye radar belonged to a Chinese destroyer.

A junior Sailor yelled, “Mother, contact. Dragon Eye, bearing 290 True.” The ship held the electronic emission. A green line streaked out of the own-ship symbol on the 3-D display. Yellow and white lines materialized from the remaining SLQcopters. All lines intersected in a tight pinwheel.

“Captain, EW, we have a precision track, classified as PRC destroyer, unknown type. Bearing 290 True, 72 nautical miles.”

A red diamond showed on every screen in Combat. Track 8762.

There would be no second salvo. When Kraken powered its sensors and loosed its weapons, the sky would fill with gigawatts of radiated energy and dozens of enemy missiles.

They still had an out.

Kraken was invisible – outside the enemy’s radar range. Not emitting a peep. They could remain silent, maneuver, and sneak away unscathed. Sail north to the Aleutians and find a patch of unpoisoned land. Catch fish until the radiation got them. Or bears.

The destroyer was buttoned up. Sailors dogged watertight doors from stem to stern. Every member of Grace’s crew was at a battle station – driving the ship, overseeing its engines, here with her in Combat. One below in Radio Central.

This Chinese ship represented those who wiped out America and ruined the world for all mankind. This enemy killed everyone her crew ever loved. It was time to make them pay.

“TAO, set Robo Ship.”

The Chief standing TAO responded, “Aye, aye, ma’am,” and mashed a series of glowing variable action buttons.

“Ma’am, the ship is ready in all respects.”

Grace thought of her 13-year-old dog, Max. Of her boyfriend, her parents, and friends from Annapolis. She recalled wild port calls throughout Asia. Fun parties in Waikiki. Tailgating at the North Shore polo fields. Road trips across the mainland.

“TAO, Naval Strike Missile mission – salvo size, 10. Simultaneous Time on Top, Track 8762.”

The TAO conferred with the Strike team.

“Mission set, ma’am.”

Grace’s focus narrowed.

“TAO, Captain, kill Track 8762, Naval Strike Missile.”



The Communicator jumped.

The sound of launch cells slamming open would wake the dead. He felt the vibrations and heard the SWOOSH of each missile leaping into the air.

Top of the hour. Would this be his final transmission?


A nearby Sailor called out, reporting new enemy emissions.

Well, we’re in it now. They’ve returned fire down our bearing.

Time to defend.

Kraken’s monstrous SPY-8 3-D radar came alive, tingling with energy. One-by-one, five new radar tracks popped up, their vectors boring in on the ship. Along with reporting the missiles’ seekers, the SLQcopters picked up three new Dragon Eye radars.

Grace winced.

Not unexpected, but a major bummer, nonetheless.

She shouted an order, “Set SLQopters to JAM!”


Kraken heeled hard to port, unmasking its sensors.

Meanwhile, the Communicator pecked at his keyboard. Finishing the last sentence, his eyes registered a blink on the screen. His outbox, which once held dozens of attempts to reach higher headquarters, now read zero.


All my work!

“Dammit,” he shouted. He slammed his fists down and wailed, delaying his voice transmission.

SWOOSH. SWOOSH. SWOOSH. The cacophony from the fusillade above drowned out the newfound buzzing and squelches in his headset.


Grace sat in Combat and watched the red and blue vectors merge on the large screen displays. Sweat glistened. Her salvos of surface-to-air missiles knocked down all but one inbound threat. Her chain gun nabbed the leaker. The Naval Strike Missiles made it through and slammed into the hull of the original Chinese destroyer.

The watch team in Combat erupted in cheers.


Static. A quelch.

“…Kraken…comms check…”

High-pitched screeches. “…report… position. Mainland…proceed direct…Diego.”

The Communicator bolted upright.


The ruckus died down on Kraken. The Captain leveraged the chaos and ordered the bridge to turn north at max speed. She took a calculated risk and silenced her radar. It was time to affect their escape, leaving SLQopters as their only defense. The bow dug into the waves and the ship sped through 30 knots.

A deck below Combat, the Communicator strained his ears.

Kraken…San Diego…over.”

A distinct voice!

The petty officer did not trust himself. The radio whined in his ears as he spun a tuning dial.

With concerted effort, the static disappeared. The circuit was crystal clear.

Kraken, this is Third Fleet. Proceed direct to San Diego at best speed. Acknowledge, over.”

The young man’s mouth went dry.

On the bitch box, “Captain, report to Radio! Captain, report to Radio!”

Grace acknowledged the call and stood.

Before she could hustle out, the EW Officer let loose a string of expletives. The Captain saw a tangled web of colored lines from the SLQopters.

The angles marched towards her ship.

More enemy threats inbound.

She lit off Kraken’s radar. Her remaining missiles belched into the sky.


The Communicator tried the radio again.

Third Fleet, this is Kraken. Engaged with Chinese warships, over.

More static washed out the response.

After the final cell emptied above, quiet blanketed the ship.

A DING from his computer broke it.

The inbox showed a new message:

“Kraken, copy destruction of Pearl Harbor. fleet commander offers bz for taking your ship to sea! PRC missile attack limited to Hawaiian islands – CONUS threats neutralized. Surgical counter-strikes executed. Mainland recovering from cyber-attack; Fleet and civilian infrastructure intact. Regret communications blackout.

Orders: take all measures to avoid enemy. preserve asset for future employment. Proceed San Diego at best speed for refit and debriefing. Acknowledge receipt. Third Fleet sends.”


The EW battlespace hologram showed 36 YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missiles converging on the American destroyer.

Time slowed.

Grace and her crew had displayed unmatched courage. Each crew member saw their lives flash in front of them, proud of their roles as the final surviving Americans.

They were ready.

The ship’s guns fired their last rounds from glowing barrels, then fell silent. In the background, the Communicator screamed for the Captain’s attention.

With fire in her stare, Grace keyed the ship-to-ship radio:


Time froze. The world flashed white.


Kraken, this is Third Fleet, over…”

Kraken, this is Third Fleet, over…”

LCDR Jon Paris is a passionate Surface Warfare Officer and writer. His service spans six ships, including a minesweeper, destroyers, cruisers, and an aircraft carrier. The above story is a work of fiction and the author’s imagination. It is meant purely for fun and does not reflect the official positions of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense. 

Featured Image: Art created with Midjourney AI.

Expeditionary Logistics

Fiction Contest Week

By Midshipman Second Class Jack Montgomery

It was freezing cold. Torpedoman’s Mate Chief Cottrell couldn’t stop tapping his foot and rubbing his legs. He had never been in a Navy office building in San Diego whose air conditioning actually worked until then and he felt strangely upset about it. He wasn’t sure if he was upset that they had it and his own workplace on Naval Submarine Base San Diego didn’t, or if he was just unhappy that he was so cold after working in the heat all day. Cottrell glanced at the other chiefs sitting beside him in the 30-year old thin cushion chairs and became self-aware about his foot tapping and stopped. Then he started rubbing his thumb against his pointer finger. He couldn’t help but fidget, he wanted to smoke and he was tired of waiting in the cold.

“Enter” said a disembodied voice. The group of chiefs stood up and filed into the office one by one, their expressions neutral.

Cottrell walked into and stood at attention to the officer who occupied the office.

“At ease,” she said and the chiefs relaxed from their loose interpretation of standing at attention.

“I’d offer y’all chairs but I only have the one,” the officer said. She had a commander’s silver oak leaf on her khaki uniform collar. Her name tag said, ‘Sykes’ but Cottrell didn’t recognize her; she was part of a different command.

“Alright guys, I need to make this quick and these binders have your orders and anything else you might need to know. I’m sorry we couldn’t give you any info ahead of time, but we don’t have a lot of time.”

The group of chiefs stood silently as the commander paused. Cottrell’s gaze wandered over to the seal behind her which said, ‘Naval Munitions Command.’

“We requisitioned all of you from your support commands because we’re forward deploying you to accelerate development of the expeditionary munitions replenishments campaign framework in WESTPAC. We wanted to give you and your teams’ time to train in the kind of conditions we need you in, but with increasing Chinese deployments, we only have days, not months, like we thought.”

Cottrell was stunned. Some of the other chiefs, however, began asking questions. To each of them, Commander Sykes deferred to the binder, until they realized she was not here to answer questions.

“Good luck shipmates, and enjoy Guam, hopefully you’ll all be back soon.”


Several days later, TMC Cottrell and his team were nowhere near Guam.

They had waited around Naval Base Guam, watching as the base transformed itself for conflict when Cottrell and his team were activated and moved out to the Philippines as quickly as they could be.

He felt jet-lagged and blinded by the bright sunshine on the small Filipino airstrip that he stepped out onto, carrying his sea bag on his shoulder. He turned and glanced at the C-17 Globemaster which he had flown on and how its large size seemed far too large to fit on the runway it had landed on.

Cottrell’s arm was grabbed by a nearby marine to keep him moving. He was brought to a bright-faced Marine Corps second lieutenant and saluted lazily. The marine returned a very crisp salute and said, “Welcome to the Philippines, chief. Sorry to rush you off, but we’ve got to move you, your people, and your equipment to the site ASAP before the next C-17 can land and deliver the munitions.”

Cottrell frowned and blinked, trying to get a grip on reality. “Are you attached with us, ma’am?”

The officer chucked, “No, chief. We’re an element of the Marine Littoral Regiment that’s been tasked out here to give you guys some force protection. Headquarters wants you guys unmolested by any onlookers.” 

Cottrell nodded and let himself be guided by the group of marines around them.

Within a few hours they were setting up the Third Expeditionary Submarine Logistics Unit on a quiet little pier. People were tired, and things moved slowly in the heat, but he made sure they progressed. 

Making the rounds, he grumbled as he noticed TM2 Harris had left the Revised Standard Setup Procedure Checklist on his impromptu crate of a desk filled out and signed, when he could clearly see Harris still setting up the mobile crane that had been requisitioned from one of the construction units. Harris was smart, but rash. He earned second class quickly, but Cottrell would have preferred to get someone a little more experienced in an environment like this. 

“You’re not supposed to initial that you’ve done the check until you’ve completed the setup. You know this shit,” Cottrell said, folding his arms. 

Harris grunted and turned around. “I didn’t want to be filling out that checklist once I finished this. It’s easier this way. You know I can handle this equipment, Chief.” 

“Stop cutting corners, Harris. You’re not as familiar with this equipment as you think you are and we can’t be fucking around right now,” said Cottrell. Then, he handed Harris a new form.

Harris grumbled, but didn’t respond. He knew better than to start something with his chief. Cottrell shook his head and left; he had things to do.


Leaning against the crane, Cottrell’s eyes were fluttering open and close. Even as he sweated in the heat, he felt too warm to stay awake. He still wasn’t sure they’d ever get a submarine coming in. It seemed so silly, sending out a whole magazine of torpedoes out to some backwater pier that seemed far too shallow for any modern attack submarine. Even if a war had started, Cottrell couldn’t imagine Navy brass wanting such an important task being done without the usual support offered in Guam. 

“Hey Chief, we’ve got a boat coming in,” one of the TM3s shouted.

Cottrell grumbled. Without any comment, all the sailors in his team slowly congregated to the pier side, and Cottrell felt their eyes upon him. He had not spoken to them since they had arrived. 

“Lets get to it.” There was a little unease amongst the group. Until then they had had no knowledge if a conflict had begun or not. The arrival of the boat had put such doubts to rest. They knew their jobs. They knew what they needed to do. No need to waste time messing around talking. Cottrell didn’t like to talk, not like that. It was time to work. 

Slowly, the boat came into view and lazily floated into the pier as it was pushed in by a local tug. For a brief moment, Cottrell wondered who manned the tug or how its crew was made to keep secret the nature of their job, but he brushed it off as he needed to focus. 

With a little unease, having never done this before without the proper support, and with some assistance from the boat’s crew, the 3rd ELSU and the USS Tang successfully brought her to pier. 

No pleasantries were exchanged, and few among the ELSU wanted to ask the crew about their experiences, and none did. Immediately, they set to work with the crew. Cottrell worked with the Tang’s COB as they moved torpedoes off the pier onto the boat faster than he had ever done so before. They used the mobile crane to carry torpedoes off the staging area on the pier onto the deck skid on the boat’s deck. Then, the crane lifted that same deck skid to a high angle, so that the torpedo could slide down into the shipping tray, from there the crew of the Tang took over.

Cottrell wondered how long thought-out this idea of expeditionary logistics really was, because he could recall as a junior sailor aboard the USS Minnesota that the deck above the tray had to be removed in a long and arduous process. Now, that was no longer the case, a design change that would have needed to be made long in advance, and yet Cottrell and his team had been given no notice before being shipped out. 

The Navy worked in vague and mysterious ways. 

After several hours, Cottrell and his team had done it. The Tang’s CO walked off the top deck of the boat, shook Cottrell’s hand and said, “You are doing God’s work, thank you.” Cottrell smiled, trying to refrain from cringing. He had never felt like being a Torpedoman was much of a holy task, especially not now, but he didn’t let his thoughts ruin the moment.

Within an hour, the boat was gone, and all that was left was the packaging and equipment of the 3rd ELSU strewn across the otherwise deserted pier. Cottrell looked at his team. They were tired. He was tired. 

But they had more work to do. 

When the first classes came up to ask for time off, Cottrell refused. Who knows when they would be asked to set up for another boat. Cottrell didn’t know enough about anything. They had to clear the pier, before another magazine of torpedoes showed up. 

If another magazine of torpedoes showed up.

He looked at them. Maybe they should get some rest. He felt clouded, unsure of what to do. He wanted to smoke, even vape if one of the sailors had one. Cottrell looked at his gaggle of sailors. They were exhausted. Moving munitions was tiring, and they didn’t even get to go home. Cottrell grumbled. He wanted to go home too. He wondered if the nature of the Tang’s need for torpedoes weighed on their minds. He tried not to let it weigh on him. He noticed TM3 Nguyen standing alone to the side of the group which had slowly congregated a few dozen feet away from their chief, waiting on word from the TM1s. He couldn’t recall her interacting with any of the other sailors since leaving for Guam, she had always been quiet and efficient in San Diego, but this seemed different. He took note of that for later. Cottrell had a higher priority.

“Hussy, Guerra, get back here,” Cottrell called his first classes. Slowly, they turned around and heard what Cottrell had to say. 

“Tell the sailors to get some rest. Obviously, no liberty, I’m not even sure where anyone could go if we had some, but the marine platoon apparently set up a temporary barracks in one of the small warehouses, ask one of the sergeants and they’ll help us out getting set up. Hussy, set up a duty section to stand watch on the equipment. I’ll take the first watch and set up a watch bill. Once you’re done with that, both of you get some rest. I have no idea when we might be getting another shipment, so be alert,” Cottrell said. Both Hussy and Guerra nodded, and without sounding off, they returned to their sailors to spread the news. 


Just like that, they were gone. Within twelve hours of reloading the Tang, Cottrell received communication from a chain of command he was sorely unfamiliar with that after a job well-done, they wanted to move the 3rd ELSU to Australia. Where, Cottrell did not know. He did not even think to ask. After a hurried pack-up, another eight hours later the C-17s had returned to the small airstrip as had the sailors of the 3rd ELSU. There, Cottrell thanked the platoon commander of the escorting marines, which had rotated since his arrival earlier, and stepped aboard. 

He wasn’t enthusiastic about boarding the C-17 again, but the cool nature of the cabin was a welcome change to the unconditioned building which was erroneously called a warehouse that had accompanied the pier. But before he could let himself be embraced by the cool air and the steady rhythm of bumps and turbulence; he felt a need to look over his sailors. 

Once the aircraft had taken off, he stood up, balancing himself with his hand whenever the plane shook with turbulence, and walked the cabin. It wasn’t difficult, most of the sailors were near the forward part of the cabin, on the jump seats that lined the sides. Already, most had closed their eyes and fallen asleep. Everyone was tired, and their limited time off had done little to change that. Then he noticed Nguyen, wearing wireless headphones, sitting at the end of the right-side line of seats repeatedly tapping her knee. Slowly he made his way over, wondering if she was out of her mind. 

“Nguyen,” Cottrell said, low but strongly. 

Nguyen snapped her head to look at him and stopped tapping, “Yes chief?” 

Cottrell opened his mouth, but held his original statement. Nguyen knew better than to have hidden a phone or use Bluetooth headphones. She had never been a problem for him before. He must have been tired, too tired to remember that.

“What are you doing with the headphones?” 

“Oh,” she said, taking them out. “They’re off chief, I just like to wear them. I miss my stuff. My music. Helps me…stay calm.” 

Cottrell grunted and sat down next to Nguyen. She looked nervous. Cottrell did his best to soften his features. 

“Everything, uh, alright?” 

“Just nervous, chief,” she said quietly. 

“Yeah, me too,” Cottrell responded. He had never flown during a war. He wondered if they were flying through a combat zone as they spoke. Cottrell shook his head. He didn’t want to think about that. 

Nguyen pressed her lips together. There wasn’t a simple answer to this.

Cottrell rubbed his knees. Wishing he had a cigarette. That always calmed him. 

“Hey, anything you want you think I could get in Australia? I’m certain we could find some, some sort of convenience store somewhere,” Cottrell asked. He couldn’t offer much, but he wanted to do something.

Nguyen’s face brightened. Cottrell broke out a notepad and took her request, then he started taking other sailor’s requests too. He wondered how he was going to get all this, but he liked the little positive impact he could see on every person as he wrote down on his little list something that they would like. After taking each request, he would say, “Thank Nguyen,” and move on. 

When they arrived, everyone was patting Nguyen on the shoulder and chatting with her. His influence might have been too strong, she wasn’t extroverted much, but he was certain at least she wouldn’t be left out and taken care of by her fellow sailors, and that was good enough. 


This time Australian Defense Force soldiers provided the force protection. It made Cottrell wonder about the involvement of Australia in the conflict, but he didn’t worry about it too much. As they were setting up, he enlisted the help of the officer liaison and gave him the list and explained the situation. He worried that the Australian wouldn’t be interested in an extra task, but the major smiled and responded, “No problem, anything for our American cousins.” 

Immediately, they set to work laying out the mobile crane and equipment needed to transfer torpedoes from their containers to whatever submarine that needed to rearm. It took hours, but things seemed to be going well. He could see the exhaustion still on everyone’s faces, but they were going effectively, they were becoming used to this new OPTEMPO, and Cottrell was proud. 

A large crash disrupted Cottrell’s thoughts. He ran out to the end of the pier from the impromptu office trailer the Australians had provided him, where a crate had clipped the edge of one of the containers, and one of the sailors sat dazed nearby. A first class had been operating the crane but he could see it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t need anyone to tell him what happened. 

While the crane was moving one of the torpedo crates from outside the container to the staging area, the harness slipped and the crate careened back into the container. He wondered if the sailor had just been jumping out of the way of the wood shatter or if she had been nearly hit by the crate. Cottrell checked on the sailor and was relieved to see she was fine. 

It also wasn’t hard to figure out the culprit. 

TM2 Harris stood sputtering where the torpedo crates were set in the harness. Cottrell didn’t need to ask him what he did wrong. He rushed it. Like always, and this time, his usually expert self fucked up. 

Cottrell walked over and Harris quieted. The TM2 recoiled, waiting to be chewed out. Instead, Cottrell patted him on the back. Maybe he would have before, back in San Diego, but not now. Now they just needed to learn. 

“Take a break Harris. Don’t cut corners next time. No one got hurt, don’t let it keep you down.” Cottrell said. Harris mumbled something along the lines of, “Aye, chief,” and walked away.


A few days passed but no sub came yet. The Australian major hooked up the 3rd ELSU and delivered on just about everything Cottrell asked for. He was happy. Not only that, but he had a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, an item Cottrell had not expected to get in the commonwealth’s fairly restrictive tobacco market. 

Cottrell felt proud of his people. In just a few days, they had managed to do everything asked of them, and still somehow stayed pieced together. He wondered how long this would last, and how long before they could be rotated out. He took note to ask that later. 

He sat on a rock a few hundred feet away, on a rocky coastline near the small Australian pier where his people were set up and lit a cigarette, enjoying the little headrush after taking his first drag. Maybe-

An explosion rocked Cottrell and deafened him. He felt pushed onto the ground and stayed there for a moment before struggling to sit up. The pier was covered in smoke, but he couldn’t make anything out in his blurred vision. He was stunned and felt the smushed cigarette slowly drop from his lip despite its stick. 

His team was gone.

Jack Montgomery is a Brown University student majoring in history, specializing in naval history. He is a Midshipman Second Class in the Holy Cross NROTC Battalion and wants to commission as Surface Warfare Officer. This piece is a work of fiction. The ideas are the author’s alone and do not reflect the positions of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: Art created with Midjourney AI.

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.


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.