This piece is currently a work in progress. Like Lost and Found, it started as a prompt at Johns Hopkins. The direction was to write a story where two characters are in the same space, but neither is sure the other is there… Enjoy…
USS Key West (SSN 722)
A serious and deadly silence pervaded the hull as USS Key West glided silently through the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Unnecessary equipment shut down, only the quietest of whispers were permitted onboard the thirty-three-year old Los Angeles-class submarine as she circled six hundred feet below the stormy surface. A minimalist crew operated the boat, ever mindful that the slightest noise, transmitted through the steel hull to the surrounding water, could have disastrous consequences.
Though the submarine was not nearly as silent as her newer Seawolf and Virginia-class sisters, she remained formidable, able to disappear at will in the vast ocean. Covered from bow to stern in sound-absorbing acoustic tiles, coolant pumps off, reactor providing a fraction of its rated power, USS Key West was so quiet that she could mug a whale before the poor mammal even knew she was there.
She was a ghost. Drifting silently through the water, her powerful sonar systems listened, cataloguing and analyzing every noise. For anything construed as a threat, a firing solution was developed, packets of digital information that were continually updated and fed into the computerized brain of one of Key West’s Mark-48 advanced capability torpedoes.
USS Key West was a hunter.
The Kazan slipped above the layer, moving upwards towards the surface and placing a tier of water that was nearly un-penetrable by sonar between herself and the faint noise that had alerted its crew that something might be in the area. As the submarine leveled off a mere ninety meters below the churning surface of the Atlantic Ocean, only the boat’s tail remained below, trying to catch a sniff of the original noise.
The Kazan was the newest addition to the Russian submarine fleet, a massive leap forward technology and strategy. The ship’s antecedents had been built to exploit specific skills. This was not so with Kazan. She was a compromise, a jack-of-all-trades. Neither as fast as the Soviet Alfa-class boats nor as quiet as the new Borei-class, the Kazan was a mix of both, designed to cruise the ocean in advance of Russian surface forces. The Severodvinsk-class submarine was, her captain knew, roughly equivalent to the old Los Angeles-class attack boats.
The Kazan was here to hunt American submarines. Just minutes before, passive sonar had picked up the faintest trace of noise, nearly unidentifiable against the ambient noise of the surrounding water.
USS Key West (SSN 722)
“Conn. Sonar. Contact bearing 179.”
“Conn aye. All Stop. Quick quiet.”
The helmsman reached forward, turning the dial on his console that told the engine room to stop the massive steam turbines pushing the submarine through the water. The needle the helmsman controlled shifted from “Ahead 1/3” to “Stop”. Seconds later, the needle controlled by the engineers shifted to match.
“Conn. Helm. Maneuvering reports all stop.”
“Conn aye. Sonar, info on the contact?”
“Faint sir. Real faint. Behind us. Tail picked up something that sounded like hull-popping.”
The executive officer sidled up to the captain.
“Not yet. We wait. If he was coming below the layer, we’d have him.”
The executive officer nodded.
“He went above the layer. Got a sniff of us?”
“Assume so. Don’t know how. Sonar?”
“Nothing sir. Display is blank. Best bet is he went up towards the surface.”
“Sounds right. Wait ‘til his tail is above the layer with him.”
“Agree. We give it a few minutes and turn away. Open the distance before we turn back in and wait for him to drive by.”
The executive officer grinned, his face mischievously distorted by the pale red lights of the attack center.
“Fuckin’ hide and seek world champs.”
“Captain. Tail is above the layer.”
“And the contact?”
“Lost the contact, Captain.”
“Uncertain, Captain. Best estimate is 010.”
Captain Shablikov stood in the pale blue lights of the attack center, smoke swirling around his thin face as his cigarette burned slowly. His steel grey eyes glared at the bulkhead as the first officer whispered.
“What are you thinking?”
“I think that contact was an American attack submarine.”
“But Captain, we don’t even know that it was a legitimate contact. It could be anything. Anything.”
“True Valeri. It could be anything. It could be a whale. It could be shrimp. It could be the water playing tricks with our systems. It could be a fucking unicorn! But it was none of those things. It was a submarine.”
The Kazan’s political officer, a newly re-incarnated position on Russian Naval vessels, inserted himself into the conversation. The man, as unwelcome on a Russian warship as his predecessors had been on Soviet warships, was considered an ignorant jackass by every single member of the Kazan’s crew.
“Captain. It is impossible for that to have been an American submarine. It is equally impossible that that contact heard us. This boat cannot be tracked. It was designed by the greatest eng…”
The first officer cut him off.
“Captain. Why do you believe it was an American?”
“Because Valeri. We are looking for an American submarine known to be in the area and because that particular contact stopped making fucking noise when we changed depths. He heard us.”
The political officer interjected again.
The captain turned to address the political puppet.
“Absurd you say?”
“Yes. Absurd. What you say is impossible. We are barely moving. We were moving even more slowly when we changed depth. It simply is not possible that he heard us. This ship cannot be heard. Not by the Americans. Not by anyone.”
The captain stared at him again, amazed that the man had not learned anything about submarines during the past year, but not really surprised.
“I’ll try to use small words so that you understand. When a submarine changes depth, the pressure the ocean exerts on the hull changes. When that pressure changes, the hull contracts or expands. When that happens, the hull pops and creaks. Those sounds travel through the water, loud enough that even the Chinese, with their piece of shit diesel boats, can hear.”
Because he expected deference from these sailors, and because he was not used to being spoken to like he was some ignorant child, the political officer’s face flushed bright red with anger. The first officer stepped in again.
“Captain. You think he heard us changing depths?”
The captain snorted, ignoring the question. He called over his shoulder.
“Sonar. Anything yet?”
“No captain. If it is a submarine, I think he is below the layer.”
“What was the last bearing?”
“Approximately 010 captain.”
“Conning Officer, make your course 180. Turns for five knots.”
“Creep away and turn back in?”
“Marvelous. I love a good game of hide and seek.”
USS Key West (SSN 722)
Commander Scott Reynes stared at the bulkhead, eyes scanning gages and dials, taking in everything without really seeing it. His mind was still in sonar.
“Talk to me Sonar.”
“Nothing sir. Just the faint creaking and popping of a sub going shallow.”
“He’s up near the surface Cap’n.”
Lieutenant Commander Will Sandler crossed the small space, stood next to the captain, mumbling.
“Surface capture. Smart.”
Commander Reynes smirked.
“We could sneak up there. Surprise the shit out of him.”
“We could. As long as his tail is up there with him. If he’s still trolling beneath the layer, he’ll hear us creaking on the way up.”
“Ain’t war grand?”
The captain chuckled, glanced at the XO, wondering if anything ever bothered him.
“Enjoying yourself XO?”
“Not really, but being angry all the time was gonna kill me.”
“I heard something like that from my wife before we left.”
“My ex-wife told me that.”
The captain chuckled again, turning.
“Nothing new sir. Just whales and fish and lots of water.”
“Thanks Chief. Keep listening.”
The captain turned back to the XO.
“Sure. We program one of the simulators to sound like us at say, five or six knots, kick it out of tube four, and set it to run up above the layer.”
“Force him back down below the layer where we can track him? Not bad XO.”
The captain thought for a few seconds, turned back to the XO.
“Better make it twelve knots. We don’t want to be obvious, but we want him to hear it. Set it up to break the layer on the other side of the contact.”
The captain called to sonar.
“Chief. Distance to contact?”
“Best guess was ten thousand yards cap’n.”
“Thanks Chief. XO?”
“Set up the MOSS. Have it run out twelve thousand yards on the last known bearing before it goes shallow. I want that simulator on the other side of the contact.”
“Get to work XO.”
The XO grinned.
“Goddamnit Sonar! Where the hell did he go?”
“I do not know Captain. We are deaf up here. The heavy seas interfere with our systems.”
The first officer approached, whispered.
“Captain. Stream the tail below the layer. If that contact was an American submarine, we might catch wind of it that way.”
The political officer, Captain Second rank Mikhail Alexandrov spoke again, still angry at the earlier rebuke.
“Why do you both persist in this? For that to have been an American submarine, at the location you say, means that he would have been tracking us.”
The captain turned, longing to strike the man. He growled, irritation showing on his face in the pale light of the attack center.
“This boat can not be tracked! It is technically superior to anything the Americans have. It is…”
“Spare me the rhetoric, Alexandrov. This boat can be tracked. Our own sonar systems can find it. Our own ships have found it. Three times.”
“But those are our systems. Our ships! The Americans cannot compete with our…”
The captain raised his hand, stopping the political officer cold.
“Alexandrov. Do you know where we got the data to build this technological marvel?”
“From our scientists and engineers. Where else?”
“And do you know where they got their information?”
“From the FSB, of course.”
“And Alexandrov, has that thick skull of yours ever wondered why a spy agency is giving engineers such data?”
“Some sort of scientific program, obviously.”
The captain turned from the gage board, faced the political officer.
“Are you serious?”
The political officer looked baffled by the question. The captain stepped closer, his face inches from Alexandrov’s nose. He growled.
“The data used to build this boat was developed from the American Los Angeles-class, a design that is older than every single sailor on this whole goddamn boat.”
Alexandrov’s mouth flapped open and shut, his eyes wide.
“That’s not true.”
“It is true you whelp. Your precious FSB stole an obsolete American design and we used it to build this.”
The captain waved his hand, generally indicating the submarine. He continued.
“Now, if we are done with this little lesson, I have a submarine to find. You are dismissed.”
Alexandrov’s face flushed as he left the attack center. The first officer whispered.
“Captain. Is that true? The FSB stole obsolete data from…”
“Of course, it’s true. This boat was obsolete before idiots like that decided to build it.”
The first officer considered that and spoke, returning to the problem at hand.
“Captain. The tail?”
“Make it so.”
USS Key West (SSN 722)
“Captain. MOSS is ready in all respects.”
“Very well. Open outer door. Flood tube four.”
A pause, silence as the order was relayed in whispers. Confirmation came quickly.
“Outer door open. Tube flooded.”
“Very well. Fire tube four.”
“Fire tube four, aye.”
The submarine shuddered briefly as the MOSS, a torpedo with a speaker instead of a warhead, was ejected from the ship, beginning its run toward the contact.
“Tube four fired. MOSS normal in all respects.”
“Very well. Close outer door. XO?”
“I want tube four loaded with another ADCAP.”
The XO turned to relay the order to the torpedo room. The captain went back to staring at the tactical plot.
“Estimated run time on the MOSS?”
“Just over eight minutes cap’n.”
“Thank you Chief.”
The captain glanced at his watch as the XO returned.
“Captain. About five minutes to reload tube four.”
“We get ready. Get the ship into position XO.”
The grin returned.
The captain was furious, nearly yelling into the phone. He’d lost the contact, if he’d ever had it, and now the tail had malfunctioned.
“The tail will not deploy, Captain.”
“I heard you the first time. Why not?”
“I do not know.”
The first officer stepped in, his voice calm and quiet.
“Captain, with your permission, I will help the Sonar Officer trouble shoot the tail.”
“I need that tail working, Valeri. Now.”
“I’ll handle it captain.”
The first officer turned to walk off. The captain spoke into the phone, calmer now.
“Sonar, the First Officer is on his way to assist you. I need that tail. I need information.”
“Yes, Captain. We are working on it.”
“Is there anything else you can tell me?”
“No, Captain. The surface noise is still playing hell with our systems.”
“Very well. Report back in two minutes.”
USS Key West (SSN 722)
“Captain, we are in position.”
“Very well XO. Tracking party ready?”
“Run time left before the MOSS goes active?”
“Three minutes, seven seconds sir.”
The captain looked around. No one was watching him. They were each intently focused on their jobs. Professionals. Experts. He smiled and reached for the breast pocket of his coveralls. The XO noticed the gesture.
“Thought you quit.”
“I did. Last year. Seems like time for a smoke though.”
“I won’t disagree. But you decided it was a smoke-free boat.”
The captain glanced sideways at the XO, smirked.
“Thanks for reminding me.”
“No problem. Part of the job.”
The XO laughed, reached into his own pocket. A pack of cigarettes and a lighter appeared. He smiled and spoke.
“You should be nice. I have the smokes.”
“That’s better, Captain.”
“Wait a second. If I ordered a smoke-free ship, why do you carry smokes?”
“Call it a hunch. Figured that order might get rescinded soon. We’re a ship of war, in a real war now. Smokes go with the territory. Fits the image.”
“Like all the movies where the captain calmly lights up before launching the torpedoes? Attack center full of haze?”
“Something like that.”
The captain shook his head, turned.
“Sonar. Run time remaining?”
“Ninety seconds Cap’n.”
The captain turned back to the XO.
“Give me a cigarette, you jackass. Lamp is lit.”
“No luck, Captain. Tail is out of commission. We’ve run diagnostics. Nothing. Likely a problem with the winch. A ruptured seal that shorted out the motor.”
“Very well. Tell the First Officer to get back up here.”
The captain hung up the phone. Nothing was going right. He couldn’t risk going below the layer until he knew what was down there. He couldn’t find out what was there because the tail was broken and the rest of his sonar system could only hear the crashing and rolling of the sea. To top it all off, the political officer was back, sitting in the corner with a notebook and documenting everything for some report to Moscow. The smug look on Alexandrov’s face enraged the captain.
The captain turned, saw the first officer approaching.
The first officer smiled.
“Captain. If we cannot change depth and we cannot hear, might we be able to creep away?”
“Yes, Captain. If we can’t hear the American, he can’t hear us. We use the surface capture to increase speed and move. We can put forty thousand yards behind us in no time, even in this sea.”
He gestured at the rolling hull, the sailors wavering back and forth in a steady, but disconcerting, rhythm.
“We can’t do that. The fleet will be here in the morning. We cannot leave an enemy submarine free to roam about the area. We need a break.”
“Captain. We cannot plan for such things.”
“I know. We wait here. Fifteen minutes. Then we work our way below the layer. Slowly. Quietly.”
“He might hear us.”
“True. He might. We have no other choice. We must find him.”
The first officer nodded, concurring.
“Your orders, Captain?”
“Make sure battle stations are manned and ready and the tubes are loaded.”
USS Key West (SSN 722)
“MOSS just went active Cap’n. Heading up through the layer.”
“Very well. Thanks Chief. Keep your ears open.”
“Yes sir. Tubes one through four loaded with ADCAPs, tracking party standing by, battle stations manned.”
The order was passed, the helmsman answered, rotating the engine order telegraph to the correct position.
“All stop, aye.”
The telegraph clicked as the engine room answered the order. The helmsman spoke again.
“Engine room answers all stop.”
The captain looked around. Every face set. Jaws clenched.
“Captain, sonar contact. Steam plant noises and propeller noises. Bearing 200.”
The captain smiled, spoke quickly.
“Sonar. Distance to contact?”
“Two thousand yards and opening, Captain.”
“Blade rate indicates turns for twelve knots.”
The captain turned to his first officer, a grin plastered across his face.
“A break my friend. The American was impatient and came up for a look.”
“He’s behind us Captain, and moving away quickly.”
“That he is. New course 195. Make turns for fourteen knots.”
USS Key West (SSN 722)
“MOSS is programmed to come back below the layer, Captain.”
“Twelve minutes into the run. Call it forty-five seconds from now.”
The captain turned to the XO.
“Will he bite?”
“Even money he follows it below the layer.”
“Better odds than I got on the Red Sox winnin’ the Series this year.”
The captain laughed, lit another cigarette.
“XO, have you ever been wrong?”
“About work or baseball?”
“Sure. I’m wrong on baseball all the time.”
“Evens out at work?”
“Conn, Sonar. MOSS is going deep. Just cleared the layer.”
“Conn aye. Heads up folks. Game time.”