A few days later, at Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean
Lieutenant Commander Jeffrey Fuller looked up from his night-long labors at USS Challenger's weapons loading hatch, wiped his dripping brow, and watched in morbid fascination. The crewmen he'd been working with did too, and for once he didn't urge them back to it. They've more than earned a break, he told himself, so let them look. Let them see what this is all about, this tactical nuclear war at sea with the Berlin-Boer Axis.
"Jesus," the submarine's chief of the boat said, looking east from under the lead-lined awning with its propane jets, radar and thermal antisatellite masking.
"Yeah," Jeffrey said. What else was there to say? The young seamen just stared.
The sun had breasted the horizon now, well past the first moment of nautical dawn, that special time of day that Jeffrey loved but rarely saw. The extra-yellow early light shone above the seventy-foot-high trees off in the distance, the long-abandoned coconut plantation on the other side of the lagoon. The light picked out the cloud-flecked sky, high scudding altocumulus over fluffy fractostratus blobs, and it illuminated the hideous procession in the foreground.
"Ranger," Jeffrey whispered.
The ATR(X) oceangoing salvage tug bore zero three five relative, crossing the line of bearing to the lighthouse on Leconte Point. Her charge's stem could just be seen, slowly making progress past the anchorage. Gradually, like some obscene burlesque, the hulk came into view, dragged by the tow cable whose catenary curved beneath the water and then up again. Slowly, almost teasingly, she moved out from behind the looming steel-gray side of the submarine tender, USS Frank Cable, against which Challenger lay moored.
Instinctively Jeffrey did the target-motion analysis in his head. Angle on the bow starboard zero four zero, mark. Speed five knots, course one six five. Distance to the track, call it 1,200 yards.
Jeffrey noticed there was comparative silence now. Work topside had ceased on all the other ships as well. Only the incessant roar of jets and turboprops and helicopters persisted, off past his right shoulder at the airfield. Overhead, birds soared, oblivious.
Ranger's wake washed under Challenger, and she started pitching slightly as if in homage. The nylon mooring lines stretched, creaking softly. Thankfully the light breeze was from behind Jeffrey, from the west.
Ranger's island superstructure was gone, Jeffrey saw, except for a tangled mess of wreckage, a livid stump three meters high. Her flight deck, warped and twisted, was more or less still there, except for the aircraft elevators, which all were missing. Edge-on to the enemy cruise missile blast, Jeffrey figured, the flight deck was peeled upward as the atomic shock front's ground reflection diffracted over the vessel. Stress loadings of the incident wave, severe drag and compression forces, and explosive negative pressure gradients did the rest.
"My God," Jeffrey said out loud. "You can see right through her hull." He watched the sunrise glowing where the hangar deck had been, and in the other empty spaces lower down. Those once were all compartments, where her crew had worked and studied, slept and messed, written letters home. Tortured longitudinals were what remained of her first platform deck amidships, forward of engineering. Along her waterline arced the discharge from many pumps, undoubtedly P-250 portable gasoline-powered units, keeping her afloat.
"They're finishing the detailed decontamination," COB said, pointing out the little figures in nuclear-biological-chemical protective suits on the hull, busy with the scrubbing and the sealing. "Aging will have happened on its own."
"Iodine 131," Jeffrey said, continuing the idle shop talk in spite of himself, "radon 222, the shortest half-lived stuff."
COB nodded. "The gross washdown would have been completed after putting out the fires."
"The naval architects will claim her now, I think," Jeffrey said. "To improve their damageability models."
"It isn't right," COB said. "She's a tomb, not a pile of data."
Here and there patches of hull plating still clung to Ranger's side. The plates were pressed inward against the frame members, whose outlines stood out clearly. The plates seemed plastered to her flank like sheets of canvas in the wind, a devil's wind. Everything was black, deep coal-mine black, except for splotches where the fires and ocean salt had oxidized her steel a matte pastel red-brown.
"She fought hard," a junior officer said with awe.
"A Presidential Unit Citation for sure," a senior chief said.
"Awarded posthumously," COB said, an obvious tightness in his throat.
"The larger battle won," Jeffrey said, "but at such cost." It was better if they talked, he told himself. It eased the pain.
Jeffrey saw two seamen wipe their eyes--maybe they'd had friends aboard, or maybe not. He watched as Ranger moved on through the lagoon, toward its closed end at the south point of the atoll's miles-long V, toward shallow water and foul ground.
"Message from Frank Cable, sir," COB said when there seemed no point in watching further, being formal for the benefit of the enlisted men, all petty officers themselves. "Captain's due back in fifteen minutes."
A group of crewmen had been standing close together at the bow, huddling like at a funeral, near the dozen hatches for the Tactical Tomahawk cruise missile vertical launch system. The men got back to work, unbidden, at the torpedo loading gear.
"Last one, correct?" Jeffrey said, eyeing the lethal cylinder.
"Confirmed, last nuclear torpedo," COB said carefully.
Jeffrey initialed the checklist, then held out his clipboard for COB to countersign. The old chief would have his thirty years in soon, Jeffrey knew, but with this war the navy wouldn't let him go. Not that he would want to, and victory was much too tenuous to plan that far ahead. COB, whose given name was never used aboard, came from a clan of Latino Jersey City truckers. Black sheep of the family, he instead had gone to sea.
At least COB had a family who cared. Jeffrey sighed to himself, then stood up straighter. "Let me give you guys a hand."
They positioned the crane's long burden carefully, then eased the two-metric-ton weapon onto the loading cradle and secured it. Jeffrey watched the cradle first elevate to line up with the channel through the hull, then trundle down toward the transit rack in the torpedo room three decks below.
A variable-yield warhead, the cryptic markings on the fish's glossy green side said 0.01 to 0.1 kilotons. Maybe that didn't sound like much, till you remembered these were meant to go off underwater. "Up to almost one percent of Hiroshima," Jeffrey said, mostly to himself. The casing at the back for the fiber-optic guidance wire was labeled no step.
COB cleared his throat. "The message said we have two guests. Passengers. No honors to be rendered."
"Very well," Jeffrey said. He shrugged. "Security, I guess."
From the Hardcover edition.