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Cunningham looked up at the call.
“Gonzalez reports sonar contact. Coordinates One Eight X-Ray Whisky Eight Eight Three Seven Four Seven Zero Six Seven Three. Estimated heading Three Four Seven, speed seven knots.”
Cunningham looked at the map and measured out the distance from the carrier to the contact with his hand. “Take about half an hour to get a couple of Seahawks there?”
Kruger nodded. “About that, Admiral.”
“All right, get them on the way. I’d better get on the horn with Washington.”
A Petty officer arrived with a cup of tea. Cunningham took it and took a sip before answering.
“Before we go weapons free, I want to make sure. A Russian or Chinese sub skulking on Baffin Bay would be an incident. Sinking it could be war.”
Alarms sounded in the flag bridge, triggered by a signal from one of the other ships.
“PO, Report,” Cunningham said.
“Message from the Gonzalez. Detonation, nuclear. They–“ the PO drew in a deep breath then slowed down. “Gonzalez reports they were close enough to take damage. They’re taking water. Damage control is working on it but they are requesting assistance.”
“Damn,” Cunningham said, then louder, “All right, people. It’s not like we haven’t considered the possibility. I want–” He looked at the display. “–the Chosin to rendezvous with the Gonzalez and render aid. For the rest, keep the search up. If they didn’t blow themselves up, this could be a decoy so they can try to slip away.”
“Not likely,” Kruger said.
Cunningham nodded. “Not likely. But I don’t want to take chances when it comes to a stolen attack boat.”
“Aye Aye, Admiral.”
“In fact–” Cunningham took another sip of his tea. “Radio Thule. Get those Poseidons in the air. Have them search north of the explosion while we cover this side.”
Orders echoed down the chain. Cunningham watched the controlled chaos of the flag bridge as the search proceeded.
Damage reports came from the Gonzalez. She was still taking water but the pumps were keeping up with it. The crew had extinguished a fire in the number two engine room.
The Chosin came alongside the Gonzalez, ready to provide personnel and material support for the smaller ship’s damage control efforts. The Gonzalez transferred her injured personnel to the larger ship.
Meanwhile, helicopters swept the area ahead of the battle group, searching for any sign that the stolen submarine still hid from them.
Three cups of tea and one trip to the head marked the passage of time.
“Contact! Big contact.” The radioman echoed Papa Three, the call sign of the Poseidon aircraft reporting the contact, along with grid coordinates. “Estimated heading three four eight degrees. Estimated speed one seven knots.”
“He must have been lying doggo,” Kruger said. “Got spooked. Decided to run.”
“Then why only one seven knots?” Cunningham tapped his upper lip as he thought. “Should be going nearly twice that fast if he’s actually running.”
“Damaged? Too close to the explosion?”
“Could be.” Cunningham drew a deep breath. “All right. Give the order. Weapons free. Take it out.”
“Aye Aye, sir.” Weapons free.”
“Papa Three reports torpedo away,” the radioman reported. “Detonation.” A short pause. “Contact still proceeding. Same course and speed. Papa Three requests instructions.”
“The order was ‘weapons free,'” Cunningham said. “‘Take it out’.”
Ten times the torpedoes dropped. Ten times, they detonated. Ten times the contact continued unabated.
Kruger stared at Cunningham, shock on his face. “Admiral, I don’t understand.”
Cunningham shook his head. “That has to be the worst shooting I’ve encountered in my career.”
“No, sir,” Kruger said. “Eleven torpedoes and miss with every one? Not possible.”
“Then the torpedoes were defective.” Cunningham sighed. “All right. Rotate in the other birds. Keep dropping torpedoes on it until it goes down or it surfaces. In the meantime, bring the group up to full. Let’s go chase it down.”
Kruger shook his head. “Sub battles are supposed to be slow and sneaky, not involve racing across the ocean at flank speed.”
“Did you even look at these results?” Albertson frowned over his computer screen at Damjan, sitting on the other side of his desk in his small office. “Or did you look at a map?”
“I did,” Damjan said. “And I didn’t believe them either. But that’s what the math says.”
“Then your math is wrong.”
“Checked it five times,” Damjan tapped the computer screen. “Same results. The math is not wrong.”
“Then the measurements are wrong. GIGO.”
Damjan sighed and leaned back in his chair. “If they were, I could not find it. I also pinged the other stations just to confirm. Nobody would go on record confirming my results but they all confirm the data.”
“I can see why they wouldn’t confirm the results. This is flat out impossible.”
“’Once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’”
“And an earthquake epicenter a thousand meters above the sea floor is impossible. ‘Once you have eliminated the impossible…’”
“But look,” Damjan said. “Consider the tsunami, how much bigger it was than anticipated. The warnings that went out were all pro forma. Given where the earthquake was, and its magnitude, we weren’t expecting much. The water displaced by a thousand-meter rise in the seafloor however…”
“And how do you explain a thousand-meter rise in the sea floor? To keep the seismic moment down to what we actually measured, you’d practically have to liquefy the rock.”
“A new hotspot, maybe? A really big one melting the rock and allowing it to rise without a lot of shear force?”
“All right,” Albertson said. “I’m not saying that’s even possible, but a hot spot like that would cause the mother of all thermal plumes. There’s not a lot of ship traffic in that region, but we should be able to pick it up on satellite imagery.”
Albertson tapped at his computer keyboard. “Let’s see what we can get from weather satellites.”
A few keystrokes later, a four km resolution image of the southeastern Pacific Ocean appeared on the screen. A disk of white covered the center of the image, trailing off in tendrils curving in a clockwise direction.
“That’s different,” Damjan said. ”Anticyclonic rotation?”
“Not usually associated with large cloud formations at their center.” Albertson said. “But it’s not the clouds we want to see.” He tapped at the keyboard again.
The image changed. Details changed, the date at the bottom of the screen flipped to the previous day, but the overall cloud pattern remained. Albertson typed again. Same result. And again. Still the same result. He flipped through the archives until finally the pattern changed—the day before the first of the first of the daily earthquakes.
Damjan watched as Albertson’s fingers flew over the keyboard. Infrared imaging. Radar imaging. Nothing broke through that cloud layer. Whatever was happening under those clouds, none of the satellite data to which Albertson had access revealed it.
Albertson leaned back in his chair and stared at the screen. He tapped on the edge of his desk, lost in thought. A bit later he looked up. “You up for a trip?”
“Something very strange indeed is going on out there. I’m going to try to get some emergency funding to take a look. Want to come along?”
“Wouldn’t miss it. Should I start calling you Indy now?”
Albertson laughed. “Please, no. I’m going to have enough trouble getting the funds to go peek under some clouds.”
White finished making notes from the weather report. High overcast. Winds from the southwest, strong but steady. The hold of his C-130 Hercules contained a mix of emergency supplies and a para-rescue team. Search and Rescue ops. With the Herky they could come in low, precision drop supplies to stranded people, or drop a rescue team if they found something that called for it.
White loved the Hercules. He keyed the radio.
“Ops, this is Theresa One. Request marshaler for run-up.”
A few minutes later, a voice came on the intercom. White recognized it as Tech Sergeant Thomas Gnad. “Hey, Jay Jay, how’s it hanging.”
White laughed. “My wife calls me ‘Jay Jay.’ You can call me ‘Captain White.'”
“Sure thing, Jay. Don’t break the plane this time, okay.” Gnad’s voice turned serious. “You’ve got a minor leak in the port side landing gear hydraulics. Should still be good to go though.”
“Landing gear hydraulic leak, copy.” White said. “Any other open issues?”
“Negative. Stand by for engine start.”
“Ready for Engine Start,” White said.
“Order of the day is three one two four. That’s three one two four.”
“Three one two four, copy.”
The gas turbine of the number three engine roared to life, the propeller spinning into an invisible blur.
Engines one, two, and four joined number three in assaulting the air.
“Theresa One,” Gnad said, suddenly all business. “Disconnecting now. Stand by to receive direction from hand signals.”
“Awaiting hand signals, copy,” White said.
From the flight deck of the Hercules White watched Gnad dash from his position underneath the wing to take a position forward of the airplane. Following Gnad’s hand signals, White’s plane, call sign Theresa One, made its way to the Taxiway.
“Ops, this is Theresa One,” White said into the radio. “Ready to taxi.”
“Roger, Theresa One. Proceed to runway two two. You are cleared for immediate takeoff.”
White nodded. With civilian aviation grounded due to the disaster and the rest of the squadron lined up behind Theresa One there was no one on whom they had to wait. He turned to his copilot. “It’s good to be the King.”
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In the meantime, you might try my Military SF novella “Live to Tell”: