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By Larry Bond
Tom Doherty Associates, LLC Copyright © 2005 Larry Bond
All rights reserved.
May She Ever Go to Sea
March 14, 2005
* * *
SUBASE, New London
The Naval Submarine Base New London is located on the eastern shore of the Thames River in Groton, Connecticut. It has been there since the 1860s, although Jerry couldn't remember the exact date. More important, it had been a sub base since World War I. Nearly two dozen nuclear subs were based there, all of them attack boats, SSNs, with the exception of the deep-diving research sub NR-1.
Having been stationed at New London for the past two months while attending submarine school, Jerry knew all about the "Upper Base." He wasn't as well-versed as to where things were on the "Lower Base," though, and so he studied the base map until he'd memorized the layout of the squadron's piers. His knowledge of the nautical route in and out of the SUBASE was even more limited, and he had gone to the trouble of ordering his own copy of the harbor chart.
It hadn't been a long trip from Newport, Rhode Island, but he'd been nervous enough about his arrival to program extra time into his trip. He'd arrived back in Groton a day early, leaving as soon as Manta school had been completed, and had spent last night and part of this morning prepping his uniform and memorizing (again) everything he'd been able to find out about the boat. Her CO was Commander Lowell Hardy, the XO LCDR Robert Bair. The boat was commissioned in 1977 and was redesignated as an experimental submarine to test advanced submarine systems and sensors in 1989. She was one of six SSNs that made up Submarine Development Squadron (SUBDEVRON) Twelve. There were many more facts, mechanical and meaningless right now, in isolation, but they would soon be the foundation of his new life.
In spite of all his study, and although he'd attended sub school here, the New London base felt different, strange. He was coming back as a submariner now, reporting to his first ship: USS Memphis, SSN 691.
Jerry looked around his apartment's living room one last time, making sure he had everything, and then shut and locked the door. He quickly glanced at his watch, checking the time. He'd allowed twenty minutes for the drive to the base, figuring the best time to arrive was 0900 (9:00 A.M.) The crew would be done with the bustle of Quarters, but he didn't want to appear tardy in reporting.
He checked his uniform again. The skipper would only get one first impression, and Jerry wanted it to be a good one. He carefully checked the driving directions to Lower Base (yet again) on the front seat and drove off.
He made the SUBASE's main gate right on schedule and was allowed to pass, after a brief security check. He turned onto Shark Boulevard and proceeded toward the Lower Base entrances, being very careful to mind the speed limit. Jerry had found out—the hard way, of course—that the SUBASE police had a thing for red sports cars that violated the speed limit by even two or three mph. Once he reached Dorado Road, he turned left and was waved through the Lower Base gate, having gotten his parking decal the day before. He even found a parking spot. Leaving his gear in the Porsche, he straightened his uniform one last time, and even remembered his orders. It was a good start.
Pier 32 was two blocks and two corners away, and he breasted the bitterly cold March wind, glad for the bridge coat he'd bought. It was a dark midnight blue, made of heavy wool, and long, reaching down to cover his legs, but most officers bought it for looks as much as for warmth. A shorter peacoat would be much more practical on a sub, where space was at a premium.
Memphis lay berthed on the north side of the pier. Only her name on the brow revealed the boat's identity. A low, weathered black shape on the water, most of her hull rose just a few feet above the wavelets that slapped against her rounded sides. Only a large rectangular structure aft broke up her smooth lines. The brow lay aft of the sail, leading to an open hatch in the deck. There was a small, battered gray wooden shack perched on the pier next to the brow, and Jerry could see an enlisted man inside. The petty officer, a second class, was speaking on the telephone.
Compared with a jet fighter or even a surface ship, the sub looked harmless. No visible weapons, not even all that big above the waterline. Most of her bulk, and all of her abilities, were hidden below the surface.
The Petty Officer of the Watch was keeping an alert lookout, and spotted Jerry as he turned the corner. He saw a short black-haired lieutenant junior grade in his mid-twenties. He looked slim, even in his bridge coat, and carried a manila envelope tucked under one arm.
It was clear he was headed for Memphis, and the petty officer summoned the duty officer, then stepped out of the shack to meet him.
Jerry stopped at the shack and returned the petty officer's salute, and in keeping with long- standing naval tradition, said, "Request permission to come aboard."
Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command Compound Norfolk, Virginia
Commander Lowell Hardy sat nervously, waiting. A summons to see the big boss was to be expected. The Manta trials were over, Memphis was old, and Hardy's tour was nearly over. Hopefully, he was about to be congratulated on a job well-done. Or maybe not.
Memphis had been his first command, and he'd done his best with the old girl, and he'd turned in a good record. But it hadn't been perfect.
They called a captain the master of his ship, the last absolute monarch. Hardy was the master of 6,100 tons of complex, and in the case of Memphis, cranky machinery. He was the monarch of 135 rugged individualists whose chance of doing the right thing went down as its importance went up. Only his constant supervision had prevented some hapless teenage sailor from sending his career straight into the toilet.
And now his fate was in another's hands again. He was waiting for Rear Admiral Tom Masters, Commander Submarines Atlantic, to tell him what came next.
Memphis was scheduled for decommissioning, and preparations for that would take several months. There'd be the last trip to Bremerton, Washington, where she would actually be decommissioned, and the crew would split up, each with new orders. What would his read? Another boat immediately? That was the best he could hope for in his heart of hearts, but unlikely. Purgatory in a shore command for a year or two with the promise of another boat afterward? More probable, and by then there'd be a slightly better chance of him getting a newer ...
"Commander, the admiral will see you now." The receptionist's summons surprised him, because as far as Hardy knew, there was still a herd of people in there with SUBLANT. He'd shown up early for his appointment and he'd seen them go in, but they hadn't come out yet. Still, if he was supposed to go in, he'd go. Bracing himself, he rapped twice on the dark wood door and opened it.
Hardy had been in the admiral's office before. It was spacious, filled with the obligatory flags, ball caps, plaques and a four-foot model of the admiral's first boat.
And people, lots of them. Hardy immediately recognized Rear Admiral Masters behind the desk and Captain Young, Commander SUBDEVRON Twelve and his immediate boss, to Masters' right. What surprised Hardy was seeing Vice Admiral William G. Barber, Director, Submarine Warfare Division, on the CNO's staff standing behind Masters. "What have I walked into?" Hardy asked himself.
Sitting in the only available chair was a tall, handsome woman in her late thirties or early forties, stylishly if severely dressed. A younger woman stood near her, and a young man in a gray suit stood to the left of the admiral. They all looked at him expectantly, and Hardy smelled a setup. Whatever was coming, he saw his next command spiraling down the drain.
Reflex took over. He came to attention, hat tucked under his arm, and announced, "Commander Hardy reporting, sir." Unnecessary, of course, but it broke the silence.
Admiral Masters nodded, "Good to see you, Hardy. I know what you expected to hear from me, but there's been a change in plans. We're not going to decommission Memphis just yet." The admiral motioned to his gray-suited guest. "This is Mr. Weyer Prescott. He's from President Huber's office."
"Deputy to Science Advisor Schaeffer," Prescott elaborated, as if that explained everything. Hardy noted the gray power suit, the expensive tie, and immediately typed him. There is a natural antipathy in the military services for political animals like Prescott, and from his expression, Hardy guessed the feeling was mutual.
"President Huber needs the Navy to help him with a special problem." Prescott intoned Huber's name as if he was invoking a deity, and in effect, he was. Any orders that came from the Commander-in-Chief went straight to the top of the U.S. Navy's to-do list. From Prescott's expression, Hardy guessed he either didn't think the Navy was up to the task or that the Navy would screw it up.
"As you all know, President Huber's recent mandate was based in large part on his support of environmental causes, and his concern for the damage to the environment ..."
Actually, Hardy hadn't known that, or didn't care to know it. He'd voted for Coleman, for all the good it had done. He personally regarded Huber as a nitwit, although as the Commander-in- Chief, he'd faithfully execute any lawful orders the freshly inaugurated nitwit issued.
Prescott's speech was carefully worded, rehearsed, and Hardy suspected he loved the sound of his own voice. "... wants to be seen as an environmental champion, not only here at home but abroad as well."
"At the upcoming World Environmental Congress in São Paulo, Brazil, the President has decided to bring the Russians to task for their many ecological abuses, especially relating to nuclear waste disposal."
Good for Huber, thought Hardy. Maybe he's not a nitwit. The Soviets had been legendary for their disregard of even common-sense management of nuclear materials. The Russians had been only slightly better and had done little in the past fifteen years to deal with the messes left by their predecessors.
"The Russian government has ignored repeated calls to deal with the crisis, in spite of evidence provided by international organizations." Get to the point, man, Hardy thought.
"The U.S. Navy has long operated subs near the Soviet and Russian coasts to gather intelligence on its potential enemy. Well, we now want the Navy to enter those same waters to collect environmental intelligence." Prescott smiled broadly, and Hardy knew just who had come up with that buzzword.
Prescott looked over at Vice Admiral Barber, who nodded to Rear Admiral Masters. "Captain Hardy, you will prepare Memphis for deployment, and as soon as you are ready for sea, proceed to the Russian coast off the eastern side of Novaya Zemlaya. Using the Manta and other special equipment that will be provided, make a detailed environmental survey of the seabed there." Masters sounded like he'd also rehearsed his speech, but it was couched in the language of the service and didn't grate as badly as the civilian's platitudes. Then Hardy realized what the orders meant.
Prescott smiled, an almost predatory expression. "The samples and photographs of what we expect you to obtain will give President Huber the ammunition he needs at the conference. He will be able to reveal the true extent of Russian environmental abuse and secure his position as the leader of the environmental cause worldwide."
Hardy didn't reply immediately. His first response, which he fought back, was to say that Memphis wasn't ready for a mission. They'd already started to defer maintenance in anticipation of the boat's decommissioning. Several rather important items of equipment needed either a thorough refit or outright replacement. As the testing platform for the Manta prototype, they'd been involved in a lot of short, intense cruises, with lots of inport time to keep the old girl running. But telling the admiral that Memphis wasn't ready would be professional suicide. Besides, Masters had to know the state of his boat. Hardy was required to send in regular reports on his material condition, and nobody could ever accuse him of gundecking a report.
Hardy searched for something intelligent to ask. "How specialized is this equipment, sir? How long will I have to train my crew in its use?" Months, he hoped.
"The equipment consists of two remotely-operated vehicles, their support equipment, and an environmental test lab." The seated woman stood as she addressed Hardy. Her tone and manner were coldly formal.
"This is Doctor Joanna Patterson, Captain." The admiral hurriedly introduced her. "She's from the President's Science Advisory Board and a specialist on nuclear waste disposal." Standing, Dr. Patterson was almost as tall as Hardy's six feet, with a pale complexion, ash-blonde hair, and blue eyes.
Hardy started to step forward and offer his hand, but she made no move to respond, and he quickly stopped himself. "You'll be the one training my crew?" he asked.
Masters explained, "Dr. Patterson will oversee the installation, yes. She's also in overall charge of the mission." The admiral had an odd expression, and Hardy suddenly had a hollow feeling in his stomach.
"As in mission commander?" Hardy asked carefully.
"Both Dr. Patterson and Dr. Davis will accompany Memphis on this mission," Masters explained.
The other woman, who'd stood beside and behind Patterson's chair, stepped forward and offered her hand. "I'm Emily Davis, sir. I'm with Draper Labs." Davis was a shorter woman, especially standing next to Patterson, with straight black hair and round glasses. She was dressed practically, if not stylishly. She seemed uncomfortable and glanced at Patterson nervously, as if looking for permission to speak.
"Dr. Davis will operate the ROVs and Dr. Patterson will analyze the results." Masters explained. "There's no way to teach your crew what they need to know in the time available."
"In any amount of time," added Patterson caustically, and Hardy's feelings of unease sharpened into intense dislike. Professional suicide be damned.
"Sir, I'm sure you've recalled Navy policy regarding women and especially civilians ..."
Prescott interrupted Hardy smoothly, his tone reassuring. "We've already discussed this matter with the Secretary of the Navy, the CNO, and the Joint Chiefs. Navy policy has been waived before when necessary, and in view of the special needs of this mission ... Well, I'm sure arrangements can be made."
Waived, hell. Overridden is more like it, Hardy thought. And what arrangements? Where in hell am I going to put two females on my boat?
"And Dr. Patterson is more than just a mission specialist, Captain. She is the President's personal representative, and as you correctly recognized, mission commander." Prescott's tone was harder.
It started to sink in. A civilian woman with some sort of political scientific agenda would look over his shoulder while he took Memphis, due for decommissioning, into Russian waters so they could count barrels of nuclear waste. And she would decide what kind of a job he'd done. And she had the ear of the President. This was insane. There were things worse than purgatory.
"Sir, my only qualified Manta operator's already been detached, along with some of my crew. He's left the Navy." Hardy tried not to sound like a kid looking for an excuse to skip class, although that's what he felt like.
"That's already been taken care of, Captain. We checked into your personnel status several weeks ago when we started putting this mission together. You've got a new arrival who's just finished the Manta operator course at the Naval Underwater Warfare Center."
"New arrival?" asked Hardy, knowing he sounded dense. Since Memphis was slated for decommissioning, they weren't supposed to be getting any new personnel.
"A special case, Captain, but one that fits well with your needs," Masters answered. "According to our information, and your record, Memphis is more than capable of handling this assignment."
"Yes, sir, she is," answered Hardy, straightening. He knew when to shut up and salute. "When will the equipment arrive?"
Excerpted from Dangerous Ground by Larry Bond. Copyright © 2005 Larry Bond. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
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