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.

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