In June, I won one of the Buy A Bard Auctions from Nene Adams. Rubbing my hands with glee, I shot off an idea to her which included a ‘better, smarter, cuter’ version of me to be involved in the story. Nene is an outstanding author and blew me out of the water with this story. Much better than what I had imagined. Please consider bidding on one of her auctions. She is really worth it and more!
Subtext: this is about subs after all..oh wait. Yes, there is subtext. If same sex ..er..sex fiction is illegal to read in your state, and/or you are under 18, please do not read any further.
Violence: Descriptions of violence as well as bad language and blood do appear. One scene made me quite sick to my stomach.
Language: bad words do appear.
Any discrepancies concerning sub warfare, naval traditions or rules are all my fault. This story takes place in the not so distant future so there is poetic license and any resemblance to any persons dead or alive is unintentional.
Please feed the bard.
HELL FOR PASTIME
by Nene Adams 2004 on behalf of Rohan the Thunder Chick
"Those who would go to sea for pleasure would go to hell for pastime."
18th century aphorism
Approximately 24° N, 70° W, off the Bahamas archipelago
183 miles from land
Rohan Tarnach woke up, blinked and smacked her lips. Unlike some of her fellow passengers, her appetite was not affected by the schooner’s dip and roll as the ship stood at anchor off the coast of… what is today? Wednesday? That’d be an uninhabited flyspeck isle, then. Royal, I think. The Cruise-to-Nowhere brochure called it an Eden in Miniature. I hope rain doesn’t cancel the barbeque tomorrow.
She glanced around in the dark, feeling the prickle of drying sweat on her skin. The luminous numbers of a digital clock floated against the blackness: 2:30 a.m. As if on cue, a sailor on the middle watch rang five bells – ting! ting! ting! ting! ting! The discreet, crystalline chimes coming from the deck above reminded her of a Swiss music-box. Water lapped against the wooden hull, a soothing sound punctuated by the faint buzzsaw snore coming through the bulkhead that separated her cabin from the one next door. Rohan could hear the noise over the sharp crackle-snap of the white canvas yards.
At least Ms. Patty Allen doesn’t snore loudly, have screaming nightmares or break wind in the night, Rohan thought about her cabin mate as she scraped sleep-tangled locks of dark hair out of her eyes. Nor does she have a bladder the size of a walnut, thank God, although I wish she’d go easier on the Chanel.
Serendipity’s compact cabin was a tight squeeze for two adults, but since they spent most of their time on deck or in the warm waters of the Caribbean, Rohan did not consider the close proximity of a stranger to be a major problem. She was outgoing and fairly laid-back; none of the passengers had proven too odious yet, and the crew were a delight.
Her stomach growled, and a grin spread across her round face. Dinner that evening had been more than ample, considering that an earlier storm had sent most of the passengers scuttling to the leeward rail to make sacrifice to Poseidon and feed the fish with toe-curling force. Rohan blessed her cast-iron stomach. A rack of leftover ribs with chili-guava-honey glaze was calling too loudly from the galley to be ignored.
After a jaw-cracking yawn, she heaved her legs over the side of the bunk, glad that she had insisted on taking the bottom rather than the top bed. Rohan had wanted the option of leaving the cabin without disturbing Ms. Allen by clambering down a creaking ladder in the wee hours. There was another reason to be considered, of course; while light on her feet, Rohan was rather plump and at age 30, did not relish taking a header off the ladder and breaking her neck on vacation.
On the other hand, if the ship sinks, I’ve got a distinct advantage over Ms. Allen, the Noo Yawk socialite who thinks nobody can be too rich or too thin – that scrawny carcass will sink like a stone, but I’m built to float. Rohan’s teeth gleamed in the darkness as she smiled in amusement. Heck, I could probably float all the way to Florida, provided the sharks are on a low-fat diet. Ha!
She got up and slipped on a short terrycloth robe, not bothering to tie it closed since everyone aboard – from the captain to crew and passengers – wore T-shirts and shorts twenty-four hours a day. On her way to the cabin door, Rohan stepped on something and swore, catching herself just in time to keep the exclamation soft. It was a snorkel mask belonging to Ms. Allen. The socialite tended to leave her things scattered about despite the lack of maid service. Serendipity’s a barefoot cruise, not the Queen Mary II, Rohan thought snidely.
She kicked the piece of gear aside and went out into the passageway, closing the door behind her. Ah, well, I suppose Ms. Allen can’t help it. She was bred – or should I say, overbred – and doesn’t know any better. At least she’s trying, which is more than I can say for that stockbroker on last year’s cruise in Maine, who complained until the rest of the passengers were ready to keel-haul him, me included.
Clearance was low belowdecks, but at 5’5", Rohan had no real difficulty making her way forward to the galley, her bare feet padding along quietly. Some of the taller passengers found the space claustrophobic and had to keep ducking to avoid bashing themselves senseless on the heavy beams. She had no such problem. Suddenly, the schooner heeled over slightly; with the ease of three day’s practice, Rohan put up a hand and flattened her palm on the low ceiling to keep her balance, then went on.
Voices floated down to her from the open hatch above a ladder that led to the main deck. Curiosity won out over hunger. Rohan moved closer to the ladder, straining to hear the conversation.
"…sure this is the pickup point?" asked a male voice.
"Yes, of course. I’d hardly have sabotaged the ship if it wasn’t."
The other male voice was smooth as melted chocolate, but it nevertheless made the hairs on the back of Rohan’s neck tingle and struggle to rise. He pronounced the word sabotage with a short ‘a’ in the third syllable, which was strange. She had to hear more. Biting her lip, Rohan cautiously put a foot on the first rung of the ladder, then applied some weight. There was no betraying groan or creak, so she continued one step at a time until she was half-way up the ladder. A salt-scented breeze whipped down from the open hatch, ruffling through her hair.
"How far are we?"
"Nearly two hundred miles. Sargasso is to the east."
"And you have the chip?"
"I’ve already told you, the chip is in a safe place. Don’t even think about trying to take if off me, Stewart. You’ve been a help so far, but I don’t really need you anymore, do I?"
"What are you… John! Put that away! Please!" Stewart said hoarsely.
The chocolate-smooth voice of John replied, "Good-bye, my friend."
Rohan choked back an involuntary gasp as she heard the muffled bark of a gunshot. Her fingers curled around the ladder rail until her nails dug painfully into the wood, and she closed her eyes. Long moments passed while she struggled to regain her composure. What was happening? Who was John, and who was Stewart? She could not remember either passengers or crew who had those names. Why had John killed Stewart? What was it about a chip – she assumed it was a computer chip – that was important enough to kill for?
Footsteps sounded overhead. Rohan clutched the ladder, too paralyzed with fear to move, and prayed silently to go unnoticed. After what seemed like an eternity, she heard a small boat engine cough twice, then roar into life. The choppy splash of the blades moved further and further away until it died altogether, leaving nothing but the snap of canvas and the wind and the moaning hull to disturb the night’s silence.
Rohan steeled herself and continued up the ladder until she reached the main deck. She instantly perceived wrongness – the sails were not reefed as they should have been, but fully unfurled and rigged to wring maximum speed from the winds. There was no crewman at the helm, either. Rohan took a deep breath to steady herself and walked to the ship’s wheel. She found the man crumpled on the deck, a raw ragged bullet wound in the center of his forehead. The expression of surprise on the crewman’s bearded face wrenched at her guts.
She whirled on her heel and sprinted for the rail, reaching it just as the contents of her stomach erupted violently. It did not help that she saw the body of a man – Stewart, she supposed – floating face-down in the water, his leg entangled in a line. Rohan vomited until bright stars burst behind her eyelids. The spray on her face helped a little.
At last, Rohan wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and turned, breathing heavily. The captain had to be informed. God knew how far they were off course; ‘John’ had mentioned the Sargasso, which she thought must refer to the Sargasso Sea. Rohan had only the vaguest notion where that was, exactly, but it could not be near any shore.
She took one step, and white-hot light erupted from the deck, along with a wave of sound and fury that picked her up and slammed her hard against the rail. The breath was forced out of her lungs as if squeezed by a giant hand. Heat scorched her cheeks; she could smell the stink of frizzled hair. Disoriented, blinded and deafened by the hellish explosion, Rohan nevertheless felt the rail break. She tumbled into space, a seemingly endless fall amid splinters and fire. At the end, cool waves reached up and swallowed her whole.
Limp and barely clinging to consciousness, Rohan surrendered to the ocean’s embrace while Serendipity’s was shattered and scattered to the depths, to join the flesh and blood and bones of those who had once sailed upon the doomed vessel.
"Come up to six six zero feet," the captain ordered crisply. As usual, she appeared cool and calm, the consummate professional officer.
"Six six zero feet, aye." Commander Nathan Sherwood, Executive Officer of the USSN Saber, repeated the captain’s order to the diving officer, who echoed it back to him before passing the information on to the planesmen who manipulated the yoke that steered the boat. The ritual of repeat-backs could be tiresome, but it ensured that no miscommunications occurred. On a submarine, screwing the pooch could lead to the deaths of everyone aboard. Better to endure a little annoyance than make a deadly mistake.
The orders continued to flow smoothly.
"Helm, right twenty degrees rudder."
"Twenty degrees rudder, aye."
"Very well, Helm, all ahead standard."
"All ahead standard, aye."
"Maneuvering, make turns for ten knots."
"Make turns for ten knots, aye."
Sherwood had faith in his captain. She had graduated second in her class at Annapolis, was one of the first female submariners to gain her own command, and had the Devil’s own luck, so it was said. Certainly, it was rumored that it was only a pact with Satan Himself that allowed the captain to win the NATO joint war exercises year after year. She had played the huntress countless times against the Russians, Chinese, Japanese, French… none had withstood her cunning or matched her knowledge of the sea.
He supposed that coming from a traditional Naval family helped. The Bonneys were the crème de la crème of the service, having served on everything from tall ships in the 18th century to aircraft carriers in the 20th. He himself had served as XO with Captain Bonney on her previous command, a Seawolf-class boat, and was proud to have been asked to transfer to the Saber on her personal recommendation.
Captain Anne Bonney stood with her hands clasped behind her back, blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, green eyes fixed straight ahead. "Helm, steady course three three zero," she said.
"Steady course three three zero, aye," replied the helmsman.
Bonney reached up and unhooked a hand-held mic from the ship’s internal communication system. It looked like a heavy black telephone receiver. "Sonar, Conn," she said, speaking to the sonar operator, "clearing baffles. Report all contacts."
The tinny reply was just audible in the otherwise command center. "Report all contacts, Conn, Sonar aye."
"Helm, ahead two-thirds," Bonney said.
"Sir, engine room reports speed at two-thirds, steady on course three three zero," Chief of the Watch CPO Thomas Halliday said from his station.
The mic that Bonney was still holding emitted a muted buzz. "Conn, Sonar," came from the sonar shack. "A search was made in the previously baffled area, hold no sonar contacts."
"Very well, Sonar." Bonney returned the microphone to its hook and turned to regard a female midshipman standing at painful attention near her side. The Saber, one of the new Sword class boats, was a sleek, mid-sized submarine designed for clandestine operations as well as research and rescue, if needed. Saber’s shake-down had been incorporated into an orientation cruise for Naval Academy students, much to Bonney’s tight-lipped fury and Sherwood’s indignation. That anger was not to be taken out on the twenty-four hapless students, though. Shit rolled downhill only so far.
"The large turns we’ve made are called baffle-clears," Bonney said to the midshipman, who colored under the captain’s steady scrutiny, "to ensure that no other submarines are on our tail, following close behind. Using the sonar gap that way is an old trick, one which the Russians have used to good effect on many occasions, and which we’ve used against them. Why is there a sonar gap?"
"Because acoustic distortions and propeller noise make it impossible for sonar to ‘look’ behind the boat, sir," the midshipman answered, still pink. Sherwood was amazed at how young she looked; it seemed to him that recruits were being snatched from the cradle these days. The midshipman continued, "With sudden turns, the area where the sonar doesn’t function will shift relative to the current heading, causing previous gaps in sonar coverage to be revealed while masking known areas."
Bonney nodded in satisfaction. "Very good. We also perform baffle-clearing to be sure that no close-surface contacts have been missed prior to surfacing to periscope depth. A collision with another vessel would be disastrous for both." She shifted her gaze to the XO. "Mr. Sherwood, may I have a word?" The question, while couched politely, was actually an order.
Sherwood joined the captain at once, motioning for the Chief of the Watch to take the midshipman in hand and steer her away. Halliday left the Ballast Control Panel and took the girl over to the diving officer.
"Yes, sir," Sherwood said, waiting for Bonney to continue now that they had a modicum of privacy, or as much privacy as could be had in a small room crammed with other people who were ostentatiously not trying to eavesdrop.
She sighed. "Nathan, we’re under direct, need-to-know orders from the SECNAV."
"Skipper, I saw the Secretary of the Navy’s courier when we were still in Portsmouth shipyard," Sherwood replied. "The briefcase handcuffed to his wrist was a dead give-away, not to mention the armed Marine bodyguard hovering about two steps behind."
"I don’t know the exact nature of our mission," Bonney said, brows drawing together in a frown, "and I don’t like it at all. Nevertheless, we’ve been ordered to pick up a passenger – a CIA operative named A.P. Emerson - at certain coordinates. It’ll take us about a day to get there, provided we change our heading soon. Once the passenger is aboard, I’ve been instructed to give him all cooperation necessary to ensure the success of his mission. This comes straight from the brass, Nathan. I’ve got no leeway at all."
Sherwood took a deep breath, apprehension making tiny beads of sweat prickle on his scalp. "Has the SECNAV lost her mind?" he asked sotto voce. "We’re on a training run, for God’s sake."
"I’m not in a position to refuse, even if we’re just supposed to be drilling holes in water." Bonney shrugged. "Be sure the COB assigns our guest a rack, and also keeps a weather eye on him. I’m willing to obey orders and aid Agent Emerson as long as his demands don’t interfere with the proper running of this boat. Nathan, I don’t want you to act as liaison. Let me deal with Emerson myself. Any fallout will be on my head. I don’t want anybody else’s career scuttled because of some spook. Understood?"
What else could he say? Bonney was a conscientious commander of the old school, who protected and cared for her people with the fierceness of a lioness with her cubs. "Understood, sir," Sherwood said.
She turned to the lighted plotting table that held navigation charts on clear acetate sheets; choosing one, she used a ruler to mark a course in grease pencil. "You have the conn, Mr. Sherwood," the captain said. "Adjust our course and speed to twenty knots. Continue to check for sonar contacts. There’s something shady going on, and I’m willing to wager this mission’s got a high pucker factor. We’ll need to look after the midshipmen with especial care."
Without another word, Bonney left the conn, leaving Sherwood in charge. He rubbed his nose, unsettled. The course would take them near the Cayman Trench, a gash in the ocean floor between Cuba and Jamaica that was the deepest part of the Caribbean. Bartlett Deep, it had once been called. Maximum depth was about 25,000 feet; the Saber would be crushed like a tin can before it reached bottom. He touched the spot on the map with his forefinger, trying to imagine why anyone from the CIA would need a submarine to do his job.
It was, however, no good speculating. Sherwood squared his shoulders and put on his most impassive expression. He was the Executive Officer and had to set a good example.
"Make your course thus," Sherwood said to the COB , who relayed the information to the diving officer. The female officer – Lt. Monroe, she of the fiery auburn hair and a Georgia accent so thick it could substitute for grits - nodded and set about issuing the necessary orders.
Ours is not to reason why, he thought, settling into a parade rest stance. I can only hope that we don’t all die in the doing. In the meantime…
"Midshipman Ortiz," Sherwood said, startling the young girl, "let’s bring the boat to periscope depth and have a look ‘round topside. What orders would you issue and why?"
While she formulated her reply, he paid attention to her with half his mind, while the other half devised ways to hide the CIA agent’s body if the man tried to harm Captain Bonney.
Twenty-two hours later, Saber reached the rendezvous point. "Make your depth six six feet," Captain Bonney ordered. "Maintain speed at seven knots."
"Six six feet, aye."
"Up number two scope." Bonney’s voice was neutral and firm, as always. She had trained herself to show very little emotion and to be very self-assured. Never let them see you sweat. That was a desirable trait in a commander. Lead by example or be damned with the rest.
She rotated the hydraulic control ring, and the stainless steel pole began to move. As the eyepiece came out of the well, Bonney snapped the handles down and trained the optics straight up to look for shapes or shadows, signs of an impending collision. No matter how many times she peered through the periscope, she was awed by the beautiful blue waters surrounding her. The boat continued to rise, the diving officer Lt. Monroe calling out depth in her thick Georgia accent.
"One hundred feet, sir! Ninety feet! Eight zero feet!"
"Very well," Bonney replied. Even at over seventy feet down, she could make out waves on the surface of the water and a glimmer of sun. The sight never failed to take her breath away. She could not linger, though – there was duty to be performed. The captain rotated the scope rapidly, scanning for hull shapes above the ascending submarine.
Lt. Monroe said, "Seven eight, seven six, seven four, seven two, seven zero feet, sir!"
"Scope’s breaking," Bonney said, rotating the optics to a flatter angle. Waves foamed in her vision. It occurred to her, not for the first time, that the periscope breaking through the surface of the ocean was, in a strange way, like Aphrodite’s birth into light and air from the cool liquid depths. Bonney relished the reminder that, although she was dry and warm inside her vessel, she was constantly surrounded by water. Bonney smiled and recalled a snatch of poetry by Longfellow –
"The ocean old,
Strong as youth, and as uncontrolled,
Paces restless to and fro,
Up and down the sands of gold."
"Six eight feet, six six feet, sir!" barked Monroe.
Bonney moved even more quickly now, rotating the periscope 360° three times in approximately ten seconds, looking for any close-ship risk, and saw nothing but ocean. "Very well, Dive. No close contacts." Blinding sun and deep blue water, as far as the eye could see.
She yielded her place to the XO, who had been hovering behind her. "Have the Officer of the Deck lay to the bridge once we’ve surfaced," Bonney ordered. "I’ve no idea how our guest plans to get aboard, but we need to prepare a welcome party for most contingencies. Have divers and a rescue team standing by in the escape trunk."
"Aye, sir," Sherwood answered. His steady brown gaze held hers for a second too long for true professionalism. Bonney did not call him on it, though. Nathan was a good friend. She had known him since their first assignment together on an aircraft carrier, before she had volunteered for submarine service. Their relationship could never be anything other than what it was; aside from the rules against fraternization, Bonney was truly wedded to the sea.
Bonney nodded and walked to the forward bulkhead of the control room, then up the long ladder to the top of the tower called the sail, where she opened the hatch. Fresh air, crisp and biting and stinging with salt, rushed down her throat. Bonney took a deep breath, and another, fighting not to close her eyes against the yellow sun that blazed overhead in the deep blue bowl of the sky. After a few moments, the Officer of the Deck joined her – Chief Engineer Mary Margaret Xiang. The petite Eurasian brunette had binoculars around her neck.
"Afternoon, skipper," the engineer chirped with a smile.
"Good afternoon, chief," replied the captain, accepting a mug of coffee that Xiang handed her. The Chief Engineer was permitted some liberties by tradition. "Any sign of our guest?" Bonney asked, taking a cautious sip of the unadulterated beverage. Ah, the good stuff.
There was not supposed to be a coffee urn in the engineering room, of course, but since Xiang was willing to share her private stash of excellent Ethiopian roast with the captain and senior officers, a blind eye was turned in this case. Besides, it kept the engineers sweet and gave the non-quals something to look forward to when they were assigned engineering rotation as part of earning their dolphins. Bonney had learned over the years when to ignore a minor breach of regulations for the sake of morale, and when to come down with steel-toed boots, fangs out and hair on fire.
"There are bodies in the sail. Do not raise, lower, rotate or radiate from any mast or antenna." The COW’s general announcement over the 1MC sounded almost indistinctly below their feet. "Repeat – there are bodies in the sail."
Xiang trained her binoculars on the horizon. In her one-piece navy blue coverall – called a poop suit in the vernacular – she looked like a little girl dressed in older brother’s clothing. A mistaken impression, Bonney knew. Mary Xiang was tough as shoe leather and had a temper like well-aged dynamite when warranted.
"Got something southeast," Xiang muttered, adjusting focus with her thumb. "Holy Mother of God!" she burst out. "Man overboard!"
"Southeast, you say… any debris?"
"Not visible, sir. Just a single survivor."
Bonney leaned over her and grabbed the mic from the bridge communication box. "Mr. Sherwood, helm full stop! Get divers in the water ASAP! Man overboard, about five hundred yards off the starboard bow! Sickbay to stand-by! This is not a drill!"
"Aye-aye, sir!" came the reply.
Like a faint ghost of electricity against her skin, Bonney could ‘feel’ crewmen belowdecks scrambling into action. A sense of anticipation and apprehension charged the normally passive aura of the Saber with excited purpose. She hoped that officers were taking charge of the midshipmen, showing them what needed to be done. Man Overboard drills had been run earlier that week, but youngsters did not necessarily remember everything that was taught the first time around.
The 1MC intercom crackled just at the edge of hearing. "There are divers over the side, do not take suction from or discharge to sea, do not cycle torpedo tube shutter doors, do not cycle the rudder or stern planes, do not operate sonar or any underwater electrical equipment - there are divers over the side!" was the Chief of the Boat’s ship-wide announcement.
She went back down to the control room, leaving Xiang in the tower to witness the operation, and made her way to Sickbay, which was amidships on a lower deck. Bonney came to a ladder full of crewmen; she shouted, "Make a hole!" and plunged through the center of the crowd with the ease of long practice.
At Sickbay, Bonney was met by Commander Martin Washington, a tall man with blue-black skin and old acne scars on his cheeks. Light flashed from round-lensed spectacles as the ship’s doctor tilted his head. "The rescue team is back aboard with the survivor," he intoned in an impossibly deep voice. Bass vibrations rumbled from his chest; Bonney could feel the sound moving in the air between them. "I expect them shortly."
Bonney started to answer but was interrupted by a groan down the passageway: "Jesus H. Suffering Christ, a-weepin’ on the cross! Can we throw this’n back for a lighter model?"
She turned in that direction to see a knot of four crewmen struggling with a dripping burden. Dark waterlogged hair straggled from one end of the canvas gurney. Bonney assumed this was their CIA contact. "Belay that noise, dammit!" she snapped, and the crewmen turned shocked faces towards her. "Get the survivor into Sickbay – snap to it, mister!"
"Aye-aye, sir!" the crewmen answered as one. Bonney and Washington stood aside to allow the men to pass with their burden, leaving a trail of water on the floor. Bonney went to the 1MC intercom mounted on the wall of the room and flicked it on. "Captain to Chief of the Watch," she said, "report to Sickbay ASAP."
The four crewmen were standing at rigid attention, not moving so much as an eyeball. Bonney dismissed them, deciding that discipline was better handled by the COB. In the meantime, Halliday arrived as ordered, tsked at the amount of water on the floor – a definite safety hazard – and started issuing orders of his own via the 1MC. In no time at all, a couple of sailors carrying mops and a bucket appeared to clean up the mess. They had probably been lollygagging in the siesta nest, an area of dead space in the bow where A-gangs could goof off, play clandestine poker games, and avoid the attention of officers.
More tradition, another blind eye, Bonney thought. The Chiefs did not mind when a hard-working seaman slacked off a half-hour here and there for unofficial R&R, but serious duty-shirkers were buttock-prodded in the most injurious fashion that could be devised. Senior staff pretended they did not know the location of the siesta nest, and deckforce personnel knew better than to take advantage.
Halliday had no real reason to linger, but Bonney knew he used the excuse of supervising the ‘deck apes’ to appease his curiosity. Ignoring the COW, she went to the bed to have a look at A.P. Emerson. She was surprised to learn that the CIA agent was a woman, small and plump and dark-haired, her face red with mild sunburn. There was a cut on her upper lip; another across the bridge of her nose, but neither looked serious. Washington grunted and continued his examination, spanning the woman’s skull in his huge hands and checking for fractures.
She waited until the doctor finished, and quirked an eyebrow at him, wanting a report.
Washington said, "No internal injuries that I can detect; no broken bones, either. She’s dehydrated, probably been in the water around 36 hours or so. A line of deep bruises on her lower back, just above the kidneys - I’d say from forcibly colliding with something straight and pretty damned hard, like a baseball bat. Her face, neck and hands have mild burns, 1st degree, from exposure and something else."
He looked at Bonney and continued, "I’d venture to say that this woman’s injuries are mainly due to an explosion of some kind. There are scorch marks on her clothing as well."
"An explosion that left her adrift." Bonney pondered that information a moment. What the hell was going on? Why has she been in the water so long? "Care to take a guess as to when she’s going to wake up?"
Before Washington could answer, the woman said hoarsely, "I’m awake now. Water, please?"
Bonney glanced at Emerson. Big black eyes returned her stare, slightly bloodshot and red-rimmed. The woman was, indeed, plumper than Bonney would have expected from a government agent; lush curves were barely concealed beneath singed a T-shirt and shorts. The captain envisioned trouble.
Saber’s crew had not been on a very long deployment – they had only left Portsmouth two days ago – but any female who looked like Sophia Loren’s extra-jiggly cousin was bound to stir some budding Casanova to try and persuade Emerson to ‘inspect the paint locker,’ as it was called. Fraternization was against regs, but preventing healthy adults from pursuing sexual relations while locked together in close proximity for long stretches of time was as futile as plugging a dam leak with a cork.
The last thing she needed was to preside over a disciplinary hearing because a crewman could not keep his pecker in his pants and Emerson took offense. Bonney made a mental note to discuss the situation with the COB and the XO, who normally acted as liaisons between crew and captain. Some fairly grisly threats issued on the scuttlebutt network should do the trick. Emerson would also have to be told to keep herself in line, although Bonney would do that personally. If the agent had complaints, let her make them to the SECNAV who had ordered this goddamned Chinese fire drill in the first place.
Washington gave Emerson a cup of water, admonishing the woman to sip, not gulp. Her lips were severely chapped and peeling; when she smiled, a split in the lower lip bled, staining crimson between her teeth. "Thank you so much," Emerson said, pushing salt stiffened hair back from her brow. "I didn’t think I’d be rescued."
"You’re a long way from Langley," Bonney said, surprised when the woman seemed puzzled.
"You mean… Langley, Virginia?" Emerson blinked. "Where the heck am I?"
"I’m sorry, I assumed you’d been briefed." For a moment, Bonney wondered if this whole proceeding - joint mission with the CIA intelligence community, my ass! - was going to be one clusterfuck after another. "You’re on the USSN Saber. I’m Captain Bonney; this is our chief medical officer, Commander Washington. Can you tell us what happened?"
"I was on board the Serendipity, one of those Cruise-to-Nowhere schooners," the woman said in between sips of water. Her expression turned sad; tears filled her startlingly black eyes. "There was a bomb or something… it was at night. Wednesday night. He killed Stewart and a crewman. I heard it."
"Who killed whom? Start from the beginning, please." Bonney motioned the doctor away. He went to the locked pharmaceutical cabinet and started taking inventory on a clipboard, but his ears were definitely tuned in their direction.
"Well, I suppose my fascination with the sea began right before my 12th birthday," the woman said, hiccupping. She clapped a hand over her mouth at the pinched look on the captain’s face. "Whoops. I’m not usually this scatter-brained, you know. It’s just… it’s been kinda rough."
Bonney decided to take pity on her. "Were you involved in an explosion?"
"Yes. Absolutely, yes. I got up in the middle of the night to get a snack from the galley. We were supposed to be anchored off Royal Island in the Bahamas – little teeny place, hardly any beach to speak of – and there was going to be a barbeque and everything. Anyway, I heard voices on the deck. I went to listen and I heard this fellow named John – no idea who he is – talking to some other guy named Stewart – again, not a mumblin’ notion, didn’t recognize his voice a’tall so I’m sure he wasn’t one of the passengers or crew. How they got aboard, I’ll never know. They were talking about some kind chip and honey, I’m sure they didn’t mean potato chips. Then John shot Stewart and took off in a boat. A dinghy. You know what I mean. I couldn’t do a damned thing to stop him, either."
Overwhelmed by the rapid-fire recitation, Bonney nodded and wondered how the CIA had recruited someone who apparently had no need to breathe.
"…next thing I know there’s this boom and heat and light and it knocked me against the rail and I went ass over teakettle into the water," Emerson said, waving the hand that still held the cup. Water slopped over the rim. "I figured I’d either float to Key West or end up in Davy Jones’ locker. How long was I adrift? Where are we? Hey, I’ve always wanted to visit a working submarine!"
Halliday himself sidled to the side of the bed and mopped up the spill in the most dulsatory manner imaginable. Bonney thought she had never seen anything so ridiculous in her life – a six foot six Chief Petty Officer built like a hairless gorilla, wielding a mop and trying his damnedest to be invisible. He was in a good position to eavesdrop, though, so continued to buff the deck long after the water was gone.
Bonney held up both hands, and the woman stopped talking in order to inhale deeply. "To give you a frame of reference, Royal Isle is roughly a hundred miles in that direction." The captain pointed at a bulkhead. "It’s now Friday afternoon, 1500 hours."
The woman sobered. "My God, you came just in time. You know, there were twenty other passengers and an 8-man crew aboard Serendipity. Twenty-eight souls lost at sea. That guy, John… he condemned those people to death without a second thought. Why did he do it? Why?"
"I don’t know, Ms. Emerson," Bonney answered. To her consternation, the woman sobbed and dropped the cup. Fortunately, it was made of plastic, but Halliday’s reflexes allowed him to catch it anyway before the cup hit the floor.
Bonney was nonplused. Before she could decide what to do – pat the woman’s shoulder? offer a hug? demand that she control herself? – there was a squawk from the 1MC system. "Officer of the Deck to Captain Bonney."
The captain went to the intercom. "Bonney here. Go ahead, Xiang."
"We’ve got a helo approaching, sir. Pilot says he’s making a delivery, and you’re expecting the package from Ghostville."
A helicopter? Ghostville had to mean spooks, which meant CIA… Bonney’s raised eyebrows nearly met her hairline. She said, "Acknowledged, chief. I’m on my way."
She turned and regarded the plump woman, who had wiped her face dry and was looking puzzled again. "Ms. Emerson? I’m not her, whoever she is. I’m Rohan Tarnach."
Goddammit! Bonney’s teeth came together with an audible click. Chief Halliday seemed impressed. She pointed a finger at him. "I want you and the COB and the Exec to sort this out. When the helo’s finished making delivery, you figure out who’s who and what we’re supposed to be doing out here, then deliver a report to my stateroom."
"Aye, sir!" Halliday responded with commendable alacrity.
Shit may not roll downhill all the time, Bonney thought as she left Sickbay, but sometimes, a captain is allowed to give it a helluva push in the right direction.
The real CIA operative proved to be female but tall and handsome, with eyes like chips of blue ice and black hair worn tucked up behind a bandeau. Peeled out of her diving suit, A.P. Emerson had a lean figure which showed to good advantage in black BDUs and a black turtleneck that was out of place in the tropics. She wore a sidearm in a shoulder holster and, according to the COB - Master Chief Jack Fitzsimmons – had refused to give it up in the most clear and unmistakable terms. Emerson had also been trying to issue orders to Fitzsimmons, which had been ignored pending the captain’s decision.
Captain Bonney awaited the arrival of Agent Emerson in the wardroom. Ample warning of the agent’s hostile attitude had been delivered by Sherwood; now Bonney was prepared for battle. A seasoned veteran of many budget committee skirmishes up on the Hill, she had matched wits and will against Admirals, Congressmen, political appointees and bureaucrats. A mere CIA operative was not going to push her or her crew around without a fight.
"Agent Emerson," Bonney said as the woman came into the wardroom, "welcome aboard the Saber."
Wary blue eyes met hers, then flicked away. "Captain Bonney, I presume?"
"Correct. I understand you have a problem with Navy regulations, Agent Emerson." Bonney kept her tone mild, but there was steel behind the politeness. She poured herself a cup of coffee from the insulated carafe on the well-polished table. Not engineering’s fabled brew, but the mess hall’s official Navy-sanctioned coffee was not terrible, just harsh on an unprepared palate. Bonney did not offer any to her guest. "Only the Chief of the Boat may carry a sidearm aboard, unless we are at war, or in the event of a mutiny or attack. That is a non-negotiable item, Agent Emerson."
"Captain Bonney, perhaps you fail to comprehend the orders that you’ve been given," Emerson replied, moving with inhuman grace to the table to pour her own cup of coffee. Defiantly, Bonney thought, and refusing to add cream or sugar. "I’m in charge of this mission…"
"I strongly suggest you pay attention and absorb some home truths, Agent Emerson," Bonney said with a slash of her hand that cut the CIA operative off in mid-sentence. The best defense is a good offense. "You might be the Lord High Admiral of the Known World, the Grand Poobah of Fiddler’s Green and God Almighty Herself rolled into one supreme being, but the moment you step foot on my deck, you’re no better than the lowest knuckle-dragging bosun’s slave that ever scraped shit off a sanitary tank!"
Bonney’s voice had started off low and soft, then gained in intensity until the last few words were like a punch to the guts. "There’s only room for one captain aboard Saber, by God, and unless you plan to take this boat by force, you’ll stow that attitude and adopt a new one. I’ve been ordered to give you aid and assistance related to the success of your mission, not turn over my command. Now you will give that sidearm into the safe-keeping of my COB, who will put it in the arms locker, and there’s an end to it."
Emerson blinked. Her eyes narrowed into glittering blue slits. "I have an expert marksman rating," she said quietly.
"I don’t care." Bonney remained blunt on this point. There was a time for diplomatic compromise, and a time to stand firm. She drained half her cup of coffee in a single gulp and continued, "My boat goes nowhere until your sidearm is safely stowed. It’s a matter of safety, Agent Emerson. Otherwise, you plan on getting out and pushing?"
From behind the closed wardroom door, Bonney fancied that she could hear whispers and a soft snicker At least one of the senior officers had an ear pressed to that door; she would have bet her pension on it. The only thing that travels faster than scuttlebutt is more scuttlebutt! Agent Emerson noticed the sounds, too; her handsome face screwed into a scowl.
"Very well," Emerson said after a beat, shrugging out of her shoulder holster and laying it on the table. "I can be reasonable when it comes to non-issues. Frankly, Captain Bonney, I have no interest in commanding a submarine or making hash of your precious Naval regulations. I do, however, have specific requirements which I will be making of you during this liaison, and those requirements will be met, one way or the other." The long, lean lines of her body tightened, giving her the appearance of a jungle cat about to pounce. "I hope I’ve made myself clear. One call to the SECNAV and you’ll be replaced with someone more cooperative. Make no mistake, captain, I can see to it that you end your pre-retirement years scraping shit off sanitary tanks, as you so eloquently put it."
Bonney snorted. "Good luck, Agent Emerson. I’ve got more brass-hats in the family than a stray dog has fleas. In fact, my aunt Matilda is the Secretary of the Navy, in case you weren’t aware. We Bonneys tend to float to the top of the Service like cream. I wouldn’t recommend voicing any other analogy, if I were you."
"Well, we were discussing shit," Emerson murmured, a note of new respect in her voice. Bonney was secretly amused; folks who worked around Capitol Hill had a tendency to esteem only those with sufficient political juju. It seemed this agent was no different in that regard.
"All right, we’ve impressed each other with the obligatory pissing contest," Emerson continued, settling a hip against the wardroom table and crossing her arms over her chest. "How about we try to work together for a moment, hmm? I have a mission that’s vital to national security, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. That’s my only concern, not playing Fletcher Christian to your Bligh."
Bonney almost choked on a mouthful of coffee. She put the mug down and said mildly, "I think you’ll find that the Bounty was a Royal Navy vessel, Agent Emerson. However, I take your point. As an officer of the U.S. Navy, I have a duty to defend my country, which includes its national security interests. I think the pissing contest is over for the moment, so what can Saber and its crew do for your mission?"
"If you’re fishing for details, they’re classified," Emerson said with a trace of smugness. "Everything’s on a need-to-know basis and right now, nobody needs to know but me." She fished a battered notebook from the pocket of her BDUs. "Take your ship to these coordinates." Emerson pointed to some scribbled numbers on a page.
"Boat," Bonney corrected.
"A submarine is properly referred to as a boat, not a ship."
Emerson stared down at her, and Bonney gazed calmly back. The fact that the operative was taller by a head did not disturb her in the least. Naval captains were, by tradition, ten feet tall, bullet-proof, and picked their teeth with seaman recruit’s bones. At last, Emerson shrugged again, an elegant lifting and falling of a single shoulder.
"Whatever floats your boat, captain. That’s all I can tell you for the moment. When we reach the coordinates, I’ll have further information for you."
"Mister Fitzsimmons," Bonney sang out. The wardroom door was immediately opened by the COB. "Kindly show our guest to her assigned sleeping quarters, then see that she joins us in the senior officer’s mess at 1800 hours. Agent Emerson has the run of the boat except for those areas that are off-limits to unauthorized personnel."
Emerson had started toward the door, but she halted and said, "I have an A-3 security rating, which gives me the authorization to go almost anywhere I please, including Air Force One, come to think of it."
"A-3, eh? You’re right about your rating," Bonney said, suppressing a smile, "but I don’t think you’d enjoy a tour of the nuclear reactor. One last thing, Agent Emerson."
"Do not give orders to my crewmen." Bonney’s tone was inflexible and cold as ice from the heart of a glacier. "If you have any requests, please make them to the COB or my XO, Commander Sherwood. Do not, under any circumstances whatsoever, disturb the chain of command aboard my boat. Do not fraternize with the crew. Do not question orders given to you by any member of the senior staff, as disobeying may mean your life or the lives of others. Am I rightly understood, Agent Emerson?"
"Aye-aye, ma’am," Emerson said sarcastically. "Clear as dammit." She pushed her way past Fitzsimmons, who hesitated a moment to give the captain a sympathetic glance before hurrying down the passageway.
She may be graceful as hell – Jesus, the way Emerson moves would make Barishnakov weep in envy – but she’s prickly as a porcupine on steroids, Bonney thought. I owe Aunt Matilda for this one. The next family reunion, she can kiss my famous lemon stack cake good-bye.
Bonney sighed and decided it was time to go to Sickbay for an aspirin, although she was not sure where the biggest pain was developing – in her head or in her ass.
Agent A.P. Emerson was seething as she marched down the narrow passageway. The submarine was much smaller than she had imagined, about 360-feet long and 30-feet wide. Space was at a premium; every nook and cranny was crammed with items, often generic somethings unidentifiable by their packaging. Could anything from porn to peppermint tea. Who the hell knows? She supposed that someone, somewhere, kept track of it all in good old Navy fashion.
Behind her, COB Fitzsimmons – one of those burly, no-neck types with permanent five o’clock shadow – was clumping along the deck as gracelessly as a hog on ice. Her mother, Dolores – a famous South American salsa dancer, winner of the International Latin Championship three years running – would have shuddered in horror.
Emerson realized she was grinding her teeth and made a conscious effort to stop. Captain Bonney was… infuriating, exasperating, irritating, aggravating, annoying – a whole host of ‘ings,’ in fact, and I wish that I could wring her neck. There’s another ‘ing.’ Why, oh why, did the SECNAV assign me her niece’s boat? Was I such a bad person in another life? Hell, I must’ve been Ghengis Khan to deserve such luck.
She was a highly skilled senior CIA operative, veteran of covert black bag ops to most of the globe’s hellholes; a wet-work specialist responsible for the assassination of a world leader and several other people in power who had been deemed dangerous to U.S. foreign interests. Emerson had rubbed elbows with presidents and pimps, traveled from Illinois to Istanbul, lived in luxury and squatted in the filth of shanty-towns. No Navy captain was going to prevent her from doing her job.
Not even one who’s got big juice in Washington. The Secretary of the Navy is her goddamned aunt! That had been a nasty surprise. Emerson became aware that Fitzsimmons was saying something. She tuned him in and heard, "… of the kneeknockers," just before something reared up from the deck and whacked her in the shins, causing her to fall forward. Her forehead hit an unyielding surface and she went down, ears ringing from the force of the blow.
Emerson twisted in mid-air, hit the deck with her shoulder and rolled, bouncing to her feet. She automatically reached for her weapon and suppressed the instinctive panic that flared at its absence. Her shin bones were throbbing. There was a distinct bump growing on her temple, too, and the beginnings of a headache above her left eye, which began twitching.
"What the hell?" she spat, eyeing the opening that pierced the metal bulkhead. The bottom lip of the hatchway was shin-high, well-placed to trip unsuspecting persons, while the top lip was a definite danger to anyone over five-feet tall.
"That’s called a kneeknocker," Fitzsimmons said. "You need to watch out for those, otherwise you can get seriously injured. I was trying to warn you, but… do you need to go to Sickbay, Agent Emerson?"
"No," she snapped. "I’m fine." Except for some painful bruises and a tic that makes me look like the village idiot, Emerson amended silently, but she would rather have died than admit it. "Aren’t you supposed to be giving me the ten-cent tour, master chief?"
"Right this way," Fitzsimmons said, commendably stone-faced. He led her to the rear of the submarine, saying, "We’re hot-bunking it down here, Agent Emerson. Port-and-starboard watches, meaning six hours on and twelve hours off, two crewmen to a rack sleeping in shifts. Since the midshipmen from the Academy came aboard, we’ve had to rig extra racks in the aft torpedo room, which is where you’ve been assigned for the duration of your visit."
Everywhere she looked, Emerson saw the ubiquitous battleship grey. There were no colors, no windows, no view, no contact with the outside world, no privacy and precious little space. The passageway was so narrow, crewmen could only pass each other sideways, rubbing nipples as they went. Thinking about spending 12-weeks deployment shoehorned together with 100+ crewmen under such claustrophobic conditions was enough to make her skin crawl.
It certainly made her respect Captain Bonny a little bit more, however grudgingly.
The bunk that had been assigned to her was the top one of three sleeping units stacked atop each other and fastened between the torpedo racks. Emerson eyed the shallow space with trepidation; it was so short, she would almost have to sleep with her knees in her face, and so tight that turning over would be a problem. Looks like a coffin, she thought, and wondered why her boss had not commandeered a battleship or an aircraft carrier.
"Isn’t there anything better?" she asked, dismayed.
Fitzsimmons’ eyebrows cranked upwards towards his thinning hairline. "Better? Agent Emerson, only the captain and the XO are assigned their own staterooms. Everybody else’s got squatter’s rights in the crew zoo. You’ll have to share the head, too, since we got no private facilities. This ain’t no four-star Hilton, you know."
"Hey, we’re bunkmates!" cried a female voice. Emerson looked around and spotted a plump, dark-haired woman dressed in a one-piece blue coverall with the arms and legs rolled up. "Rohan Tarnach," the stranger said, coming forward with an outstretched hand. "I’m a researcher for the Daily Yell newspaper in Arlington, Virginia."
Emerson felt her eyeballs trying to pop out of her skull. The headache was getting worse. Her stomach was trying to crawl up her throat. "Master chief," she rasped, "what in the name of the Great Ghu is a journalist doing on board?"
Fitzsimmons might have been pierced by her most evil eye but he answered quickly, explaining the rescue of Rohan Tarnach from the Atlantic. As COB and the boat’s most senior officer aside from captain and XO, he was entitled to know everything that went on aboard Saber… and he had gotten the skinny about Rohan’s ordeal from COW Halliday earlier.
Rohan cocked her head to one side, utterly unintimidated. She added a few details here and there, including a hair-raising account of a shark (or some other denizen of the deep) brushing against her toes in that endless night of bobbing on the waves. Emerson’s jaw ached as badly as her head by the time Fitzsimmons and Rohan were finished.
"I want this woman off the boat," Emerson said, once she had regained control of her speech. "Do you hear me, master chief? I want her off!"
"You sure are cranky," Rohan said, getting right into the taller woman’s personal space. "What’s your problem, anyway?"
Fitzsimmons backed away. In the time honored tradition of officers everywhere, he muttered, "I’d better go and get the XO and the OOD," and fled – moving much more gracefully than before, the CIA agent noticed. The military mindset was mostly a conundrum to her, but Emerson understood the concept of passing the buck. When in doubt, kick the problem upstairs and let the brass deal with it. That’s what they get paid for.
Emerson shook her head and groaned, wishing she still had her sidearm. This mission was turning into a goddamned Chinese fire drill.
By the time this is over, I’ll be lucky to get an assignment in Siberia.
Matters were not helped by the arrival of a half-dozen midshipmen, all of whom immediately formed a protective ring around Rohan once she had given them an earful about Emerson.
Can things get any worse? Emerson inquired of Heaven, just a second too late to remember that the answer was always and definitely, yes.
"Let me see if I’ve got this straight," Captain Bonney said, raking Emerson with a glare that could, if rumor was to be believed, eat through a solid steel bulkhead like a hot knife through Jello. "Having rescued her already, you want me to abandon Ms. Tarnach to the sea."
"Yes!" Emerson said. "Stick her in a raft and throw her overboard."
"May I ask why?"
"We’re on a covert mission, captain. Having a civilian on board – and a civilian journalist at that – complicates matters and may adversely affect our desired outcome. Oh, I’m not an ogre," Emerson said, spreading her hands apart. "By all means, put her in one of those life rafts with an emergency beacon and all the rations you can spare. I’m not advocating marooning the woman on the shore of an uncharted desert isle, after all."
"Good thing, since I can’t picture you as Gilligan," Bonney said. "Agent Emerson, I cannot – and in all good conscience, will not – abandon a shipwreck survivor to the mercy of the sea. Not only would this be contrary to maritime law, it would also violate my oath as an officer and a gentleman."
"You go, girlfriend," Rohan murmured from the corner of the wardroom. She was ignored.
"Furthermore, you have stated adamantly that Saber is to remain at sea until the mission is accomplished, and that requesting a helo-evac for our unwitting guest is out of the question." Bonney made a ‘what can I do’ gesture. "I can confine Ms. Tarnach to quarters, which will mean turning my XO out of his stateroom. I can assign a Marine guard to follow her and ensure she doesn’t wander into sensitive areas. I’m more than willing to entertain reasonable suggestions as to Ms. Tarnach’s disposition, but do not ask me to toss her overboard like yesterday’s garbage!"
"Captain, let me remind you that this is a matter of national security," Emerson shot back, not yielding so much as an inch.
"And let me remind you that an officer of the United States Navy is not inclined to shoot civilians out of the torpedo tubes!" Bonney’s jaw jutted out pugnaciously. "I can make an exception for you, Agent Emerson, should you attempt to pursue the matter further."
"Hah!" Rohan exclaimed, punching the air with her fist. "Take that!"
"Please, Ms. Tarnach," Sherwood said out of the side of his mouth, but his eyes were twinkling.
Emerson slapped a hand on the top of the table. Her face was bright with rage "Give me a goddamned gun and I’ll take care of it myself!"
"I am not a journalist," Rohan said. "I’m a researcher for a newspaper. Big difference." She sniffed at Emerson in disdain and turned her softening gaze upon the captain. "You understand, don’t you, Anne?"
Emerson’s mouth dropped open. Bonney looked green, then growled at the agent, "Yes, my name’s Ann Bonney, just like the pirate. You got something to say about that?"
A squawk came from the 1MC. "Conn to Captain!"
Bonney went to the intercom. "Bonney here."
"Sonar reports contact, sir! Please report to the conn."
"On my way." Bonney pointed a finger at Emerson. "This isn’t over, agent."
Before the CIA operative could reply, the boat suddenly lurched over, a dull boom sounding through the pressure hull. Bonney grabbed Rohan to keep her from falling; the plump woman wound her arms around the captain’s neck and hung on for dear life. Once the sub stabilized, Bonney carefully pried Rohan’s arms away and said, "Perhaps you’ll be safer in the control room, Ms. Tarnach. Please join us, Agent Emerson… in your own time, of course."
Bonney darted into the passageway, bellowing, "Make a hole!" Sherwood was right behind her.
Emerson looked at Rohan, who wrinkled her nose and said, "Who’d fire a torpedo at us anyway?"
Rohan nodded. "Come on," she said, "we’d better find the conn."
"Wait." Emerson chewed her upper lip, obviously considering. "Look, we got off to a bad start, Ms. Tarnach. I’m sorry if I offended you."
The submarine lurched again, this time to the opposite side, then the bow angle changed downward, causing a loose carafe of coffee to slide off the wardroom table and clatter to the deck. Another vibrating boom rattled through the hull, this one sounding further away, followed by a series of lighter pops.
"I’ll bet the captain’s using counter-measures," Rohan said sagely. "I’m something of an armchair submarine afficianado, you see."
"I didn’t really pay that much attention to your story earlier. Perhaps you’d repeat it for me," Emerson asked. Butter would not have melted in her mouth.
Rohan sighed. "Now?" At Emerson’s pleading look, she relented. "Okay, I was on this Cruise-to-Nowhere…"
When Rohan finished her recitation a few minutes later, Emerson slammed her fist on the table, startling the plump woman. "What’s the matter now?" Rohan asked.
"Son of a bitch!" Emerson ground out, blue eyes flashing with fury. "Come on, Rohan. Take me to the bridge, or the conn, or whatever the hell you call it."
Rohan took a breath, obviously prepared to question, then let it out without voicing her inquiry. "Fine. And after that, you won’t try to get me kicked off the boat anymore?"
"You have my word."
Rohan smiled and patted Emerson’s shoulder. "You’re not so bad after all."
"Anytime this century would be fine," Emerson snapped impatiently, and Rohan scowled.
"I’ve changed my mind. You’re a real bitch after all," she mumbled, and led the way out of the wardroom, her ample hips twitching in annoyance.
Emerson sneered and followed Rohan down the passageway. Several crewmen squeezed past, making breathless apologies. Halfway there, the lights went out. Dull red emergency lighting came on, the low intensity illumination creating weird shadows on the walls.
"We’re rigged for red," Rohan said enigmatically.
Emerson did not know what that meant, but she figured it could not be good.
Sherwood was the most senior officer available in the command center. He was not inclined to make small talk. "Helm, right five degrees rudder, steady course two seven zero."
"Commander Sherwood, I need to speak to the captain right now," Emerson insisted.
"She’s in the sonar shack. I can’t spare anybody to take you there now," Sherwood said, not taking his eyes away from the weapons alcove.
Rohan motioned Emerson to come away. "C’mon, I know where that is."
"Make your depth two zero zero feet, increase speed to full," Sherwood said, echoed by the diving officer in her Georgian accent. "Ten degrees down bubble."
"Ten degrees down bubble, aye."
The angle of the bow changed, dipping downward. Rohan clutched a pipe and reared back, keeping her balance with an effort. Emerson emulated her. From somewhere came the low groan of metal under stress. Together, the two women moved to the sonar room. The space seemed barely big enough for the sonar operators and their equipment, which consisted of screens of lurid green waterfalls and computer read-outs. Captain Bonney was there, perched on a console. She glanced up as the women entered.
"You got something you want to confess, Agent Emerson? Like why some son-of-a-bitch in a retired Kursk-class boat is taking pot-shots at me, for example." Under the red light, Bonney looked eerie, her eyes gone dead black
Like a great white shark, Emerson thought, and controlled a shudder. "What happened?"
Bonney took off her cap and scratched her scalp. "There was another sub in our cavitation wake," she said. "When Officer of the Deck Xiang ordered our baffles cleared, passive sonar caught the other boat and identified it as a Kursk by the screws."
"I showed blade count consistent with a Kursk-class boat, likely one of the first manufactured in the eighties," the sonar operator said. He had the unpretty, bony face of a farmboy from the deep Midwest. The name emblazoned on his coverall was ‘Murphy.’
Bonney nodded and continued, "The Russian fired on us when we pinged to verify range and also to let him know that he was caught tailgating. Fortunately…"
Another sonar operator interrupted, saying into the mic on his headphones, "Conn, Sonar… contact at two five zero; repeat, contact at heading two five zero. Sixteen hundred yards and closing off the port stern. ETA two minutes."
Emerson shook her head as her ears popped.
Bonney grabbed an internal communication handpiece and pressed a button for the control room. "Captain to Conn… drop plane, thirty degrees down bubble," Tension on the hull increased, accompanied by deepening groans of stress. At a thirty-degree angle, everyone had to brace themselves or risk being thrown on the floor. The ever-present hum of the nuclear-powered engines grew louder. "Release counter-measures. Increase depth to three zero zero feet. Starboard turn on my mark… mark! All hands, brace for impact!"
Murphy put a hand on his headphones, as if by pressing them closer to his ear, he could hear better. "Contact at five zero zero yards… four zero zero yards… three zero zero yards…" The water-muffled roar of an explosion shivered through the pressure hull. "Contact destroyed, sir. Detonation at one five zero yards."
"Where’s the Kursk?"
"Fifteen hundred yards off the port stern, sir, bearing zero nine eight degrees."
Bonney said into the com, "Captain to Conn… get me a firing solution ASAP. Flood tubes one and two and open outer doors." She clapped the sonar operator on the shoulder. "Good work, Mr. Murphy. Keep an ear out for that motherless bastard."
Emerson opened her mouth but was forestalled by Bonney’s upraised hand. "Not now," the captain said. She started to leave the sonar room.
Emerson grabbed the woman’s upper bicep, holding her in place. "Yes, now," she said harshly.
Bonney glared at her, then nodded, shaking off the agent’s grip. "Very well, make it snappy. I’ve got a boat to run."
"One week ago, a U.S. intelligence satellite lost telemetry and came down in the Caribbean, on a deserted island called Royal," Emerson said, paying no attention to Rohan’s gasp of surprise. "The Agency sent two agents to retrieve the downed bird - John Makepeace and Orlando Stewart."
"John and Stewart! Oh, so they were CIA agents!" Rohan cried.
Emerson continued grimly, "Makepeace and Stewart went rogue and stole the microchip inside the satellite. That chip contains information that can compromise several dozen vital Agency operations around the globe."
"Conn to Captain, we have a firing solution," came from an intercom on the wall.
Bonney said to Emerson, "One moment," then thumbed a switch on the intercom. "Weapons officer to lock fire-control solution and prepare to fire. Slow speed to five knots." She waited a beat and said, "Weapons control, fire tubes one and two!"
"Aye, sir! Torpedoes away!"
"Helm, right full rudder!"
Murphy said, "Torpedoes at fifteen hundred yards and running true… one thousand yards… eight zero zero yards…"
Bonney braced herself and motioned for the other women to do the same. Rohan took advantage of the opportunity and plastered herself against the captain’s side. Emerson took hold of the upper lip of the hatchway. Sweat stung her eyes; she blinked it away.
"Six zero zero yards… four zero zero yards… three zero zero yards… still running true," the sonar operator said. In the dim scarlet light, the man resembled a gargoyle. "Two zero yards... sir, I have detonation at zero eight seven yards."
"Did we get the Kursk?"
"No, sir. He dropped noise-makers. He’s moving off, though."
Bonney clicked on the 1MC again. "Conn, this is the Captain… close torpedo tube doors! Open ballast! Make your depth nine zero zero feet, all ahead one-third." To Emerson and Rohan, she said, "We’re going to hide in the Cayman Trench. Hopefully, the Kursk won’t follow us in."
"Captain, you can’t hide." Emerson watched Rohan’s eyes go round and suppressed a smirk. "We’ve got to sink that other sub. Sink it or capture it, I don’t care which, as long as Samara doesn’t get away."
"The Samara? She was decommissioned five years ago," Bonney said. "Was commanded by… um… Arkady Romanov. He’s retired now. What’s he doing in these waters?"
"That’s what I’m trying to tell you." Emerson slumped against the bulkhead. "Dammit, you got any aspirin on this tub?"
"Come to my stateroom, Agent Emerson. You, too, Ms. Tarnach."
"Oh, no… no more civilian involvement," Emerson protested.
To Emerson’s surprise, Bonney reached out and patted her cheek gently. "At this moment, we’re all about a whisker away from a horrible death. I figure that puts civilians, CIA and the Navy on mighty equal footing. If we manage to survive, you can log complaints to your heart’s content. Until then, let’s just forget rank and file and sort this out together."
Rohan giggled and glanced at the captain, adoration clearly written on her features. "Yes, absolutely. We’re all sisters under the skin. Besides, I’m not afraid. You’re a real hero, Anne, and I know you’ll find a way to save every soul on Saber."
It was impossible to tell if Bonney blushed, but she had a definite ‘aw, shucks’ look. "That’s kind of you to say so, Ms. Tarnach."
"Please, call me Rohan," the dark-haired researcher breathed.
Bonney managed to extricate herself from Rohan’s boa constrictor-like embrace without causing grievous bodily harm. "Come along, ladies. Time’s a-wastin’."
Emerson rubbed her aching temples – careful to avoid the bump from her earlier accident – and found herself bobbing along in the captain’s wake. A passing midshipmen gave her a deadly glare, which she returned with interest.
What am I going to tell the Assistant Director? she thought, staring at Rohan’s navy clad buttocks, which rolled and twitched like two cats fighting in a sack. He’s going to shit blue bricks when he founds out that I’ve been revealing classified material to a damned newspaper researcher.
After a moment, Emerson shrugged and did a quick snap-jerk of her hips and mambo shuffle that made the crewmen gape.
Ah, to hell with it. We probably won’t live to see tomorrow anyway.
The three women went down a ladder to operations middle level, made a U-turn and ducked through the hatch into Officer’s Country, and found themselves in another narrow passageway running fore-and-aft, the whole length lined with wood-grain Formica. There were two staterooms on the outboard side. Rohan knew from her studies that on a Sword-class boat, the wardroom was aft, the officer’s head forward. In the larger Broadsword-class, the chief engineer would have a stateroom in the center, with XO and captain on either side and a fourth stateroom at the end for the chief navigator.
Captain Bonney showed the other women into her stateroom, then reached into a cabinet and pulled out a bottle of amber liquid. "Splice the mainbrace?" she asked.
"Maker’s Mark," Emerson observed, nodding in approval at the bourbon’s brand. "Why not? Sun’s got to be over the yardarm."
Rohan was not sure if she liked bourbon or not, but it was being offered by Captain Anne Bonney, so she accepted a glass with two finger’s of alcohol and refused water. She sat down in a chair – the stateroom was a combination of room and office, but small – and glanced around. A picture screwed to the bulkhead showed the ’06 graduating class of Annapolis; Bonney was in the center, her arm slung around a classmate’s neck. Rohan thought the captain-to-be had a devilish smile and a mischievous gleam in her green eyes.
"Now, barring further developments like being shot at again, I want to hear the whole story, Agent Emerson," Bonney said, settling down at the desk.
Emerson tipped her glass and swallowed the contents in a gulp. "John Makepeace and Orlando Stewart were assigned to go to Royal Isle and retrieve the satellite microchip," she said. "That was a week ago. When they missed their radio contact, an agent was sent to Royal to assess the situation. They killed him."
She turned to Rohan. "As near as I can figure out, based on our intelligence and your story, neither Makepeace nor Stewart expected the Cruise-to-Nowhere schooner to anchor off the island. They were expecting to rendezvous with a submarine, a decommissioned Kursk-class Russian boat commanded by a hard-line old-school communist, Arkady Romanov."
"Ah, a member of the Govnodavy," Bonney said, a shrewd glint in her eyes, and Emerson choked. The captain smacked her helpfully on the back until she regained breath for speech. The word ‘govnodavy’ referred to the ugly, clunky, ill-made shoes manufactured by communist-run factories in the glory days.
"Yeah, the Shit-Stompers," Emerson said, "a group of Red Army leaders who split from the Russian government during Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. You speak Russian?"
"And Spanish, French, Italian, Mandarin, a smattering of Japanese, Polish and Lithuanian. Enough colloquial Arabic, Swahili and Kashmiri to get into a bar fight." Bonney shrugged. "It’s a gift and a hobby. Go on."
"The Govnodavy is a real old boys’ network. They were dabbling in politics – no surprise there – and propaganda, nothing too alarming. Mostly sitting around drinking rotgut vodka, saluting Lenin and getting maudlin about the days of apparatchik and nomenklatura. Then Romanov and his pals purchased the Samara when it was auctioned off six months ago. No nukes on board. I suppose he must’ve bought torpedoes from somewhere, probably off a crooked quartermaster in Murmansk."
Bonney’s nostrils flared. "Why didn’t the Russians warn us that a goddamned fire-breathing anti-capitalist Cossack like Romanov was cruising around loose in a fully armed sub?" She bit off each word as though it was personally offensive.
"They did." Emerson had to look away. When she finally met the captain’s icy green glare, she refused to flinch. "It wasn’t my call. I don’t know why but the Romanov matter was kept secret. Except now he’s got John Makepeace in his pocket, along with a microchip that will prove incredibly damaging if we don’t get it back or destroy it. I don’t know if Romanov plans to use the data on the chip himself, or sell it to the highest bidder… either way, he has to be stopped."
"Why did he blow up my ship?" Rohan asked, gripping the glass of untouched bourbon so tightly, her knuckles ached.
"The last thing Makepeace wanted was witnesses. Who knows what might have been seen and could be reported? The safest thing to do was kill everyone aboard. The schooner was miles away from the nearest port. By the time debris was spotted – if it ever was – the sea would’ve taken care of any evidence." Emerson reached over and touched Rohan’s wrist. "The Serendipity was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. You were lucky."
"And my friends weren’t." Rohan had only spent three days with the other people aboard the ill-fated schooner, but her survival meant that they would never be forgotten while she lived. "I’m not out for revenge, here, but justice has to be served. Anne, you’ve got to go after Samara. Makepeace shouldn’t be allowed to get away with murder."
Bonney poured herself a second glass of bourbon and added a splash of water. "And he won’t, Ms. Tarnach. I can promise you that – my word as an officer."
"So what are we going to do?" Emerson asked.
"Samara is at least thirty years old, held together with spit and baling wire, if I know the Russians. They’re cheap and keen on make-do. She’s big – 500-feet – and not as maneuverable as Saber. If her weapon’s complement is at full strength, she outguns us. And Samara is commanded by a read son-of-a-gun who suckled saltwater instead of mother’s milk. I never played ‘tag’ with Romanov but I’ve heard stories from captains who did, back in the Cold War. He was infamous for Crazy Ivans."
Rohan explained to Emerson, "Crazy Ivan is a submarine avoidance maneuver favored by Russian commanders, designed to detect another sub hiding in their wake."
"The sub turns 180° without warning. Only thing the following boat can do is quick quiet – shut down all engines, go dead in the water and rig for silence," Bonney said. "Problem is, a boat this big doesn’t stop on a dime, so there’s a danger of drifting into the other sub’s stern. Real high pucker factor, and no mistake. Those Cold War commanders played a lot of chicken, especially under the ice – St. Anne’s Trough and the Polar Abyss."
She thumbed open the 1MC switch. "Sonar, this is the captain."
"Aye, sir, Sonar here," Murphy answered.
"Status report on our friend Ivan."
"He’s pinging active sonar, sir. So far, we’ve lost him in the weeds but he’s maintaining a five thousand yard patrol. He’s overhulling us right now at seven zero zero feet."
"Very well, Sonar." Bonney clicked off the com. "Romanov is hunting for us." She regarded Emerson through narrowed eyes. "If I was running this show, I’d make a run for Jamaica. Arkady Romanov has shown his intentions. He isn’t firing water slugs. Those fish he’s lobbing at our bearings are live ordinance."
"I’m sorry, captain, but I really must insist that you engage Samara," Emerson said. Much to Rohan’s surprise, the CIA agent really did sound apologetic. Emerson’s voice lowered. "If Romanov gets away clean with that chip, the U.S. will be hard pressed to avoid a war."
"War? With whom?" Bonney’s eyebrow quirked.
Emerson said nothing, merely rolled her eyes to the invisible heavens. "If I told you, I’d have to kill you," she intoned.
"Shit." Bonney peeled off her watch cap and threw it on the table. Despite the suspense clawing at her, Rohan had to smile faintly. According to old Naval tradition, dating from the Age of Sail, only an officer who had made the North Pole passage was permitted to put his hat on the wardroom table. She supposed the captain could put his/her hat anywhere he/she wished, and besides, this was Bonney’s stateroom, not the officer’s ward. It was odd, the way trivia surfaced unbidden in tense moments.
Bonney pulled the elastic band out of her hair and ran fingers through the shoulder-length blonde locks. "Very well, Agent Emerson. It seems that I have no choice. I’m risking my crew’s life on your word; just be aware of that."
"And on the orders of the SECNAV," Emerson pointed out.
"Yes, and Aunt Matilda’s orders, may she be afflicted with sand fleas," Bonney said. She gathered her hair at the base of her neck and secured it with the band again. "I need to go to the conn. You ladies can stay here – in which case I’ll assign a Marine escort to keep you amused – or join me."
"I’d better go with you," Emerson said.
Rohan said, "I think I’ll go back to the sonar shack. Would that be okay?"
"As long as you stay quiet and let the operators do their job." Bonney turned to Emerson. "Step lively, Agent Emerson. We’ve got a Crazy Ivan to catch."
"My name’s Amelia Peabody Emerson," the operative said, visibly bracing herself.
Rohan snickered. "Like ‘Crocodile on the Sandbank’ Amelia Peabody? Those amusing Victorian mysteries by Elizabeth Peters? Oh, Lord!"
Bonney looked blank. "I’m a Patrick O’Brian fan myself," the captain confessed.
"Thank the Great Ghu for small favors!" Emerson blurted.
Rohan supposed the agent’s name had been a sore point all her life, much like Captain Bonney’s. Well, they’ve got something in common, at least.
She did not miss the sympathetic glance exchanged between the two women before they left the stateroom, headed for the conn.
In the sonar shack, Murphy selected a more tightly focused frequency filter and closed his eyes, concentrating. Rohan watched him appreciatively. Target motion analysis was a trigonometry problem that required skill and thoroughness, but not too much of either. If a boat ran multiple ‘legs’ to nail down its quarry, it ran the risk of losing him. Too few and no firing solution could be obtained. At the moment, though, Saber was not running legs but remained silent, hovering at negative buoyancy in the depths.
Samara had stopped using active sonar to ‘ping’ the surroundings in a blatant attempt to pinpoint Saber’s location. Now they were cruising back and forth, trying to pick up the sound of Saber’s screws. Captain Bonney had ordered the crew to rig for silence. The steady thrum-thrum-thrum of the engines was gone; all was quiet and still.
The azimuth changed on the sonar contact. Murphy said quietly, "Conn, Sonar…contact range is one thousand yards and closing." A ghostly collection of noise, interpreted as light, marched across his screen. The approaching Kursk looked like a towering thundercloud, big-bellied and reeking of malice. A low, powerful throb beat through Saber’s titanium-and-anechoic foam skin – the sound of Samara’s screws whipping the water.
Rohan held her breath until she felt dizzy, then let it out a tiny increment at a time. The cut on her lip stung; she tasted the rusty iron of blood in her mouth.
"Conn, Sonar… contact range eight zero zero yards and closing…"
Bonney stood beside the plotting table, Sherwood next to her. "Steady, Lt. Munroe," she whispered to the diving officer.
The auburn-haired woman nodded sharply and turned her attention back to the two planesmen at their yokes.
The unnatural quiet was hard on the nerves, Bonney knew. However, a captain had to provide the best example to her crew. She showed none of her impatience, none of the doubts that assailed her; instead, Bonney remained impassive and cool. An alien vibration infiltrated her hearing, set an unpleasant rattle in her teeth and bones – Samara’s inexorable approach.
At last, she heard the news that she had been awaiting: "Conn, Sonar… contact range is five zero zero yards."
"Now, Mr. Sherwood," Bonney said quietly.
"Engines ahead one-third," Sherwood said. His hand gripped the edge of the plotting table; his mouth was pinched with strain.
"One-third, aye," was echoed back.
The engines hummed back to life; the sound seemed overloud, an ear-splitting roar that could surely be heard miles away. Bonney surreptitiously worked her mouth to generate spit for speech. High pucker factor, indeed. "Five degree up bubble," she ordered. "Match contact depth at three five zero feet."
This was the moment of truth. Bonney was attempting to slide her boat into Samara’s wake. If it worked, Saber would remain invisible to the other submarine’s sonar; they could follow Romanov while devising a strategy for dealing with him. This was a desperation maneuver; they could not remain silent in the Cayman Trench, waiting for the inevitable. Sooner or later, Samara would find them. Goddamn fish in a barrel. Bonney waited, clenching a hand into a fist which she hid at her side. The heavy swirl of the submarine passing above them rocked Saber like a fishing boat in the wake of a freighter.
She settled into parade rest position, feet apart, hands clasped together in the small of her back. Within the next minute or so, they would know if they had been successful… or they would all be dead.
An old submariner’s prayer raced through Bonney’s mind:
"Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who biddest the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep.
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea."
Though acquainted with the depths of the ocean, Bonney thought, deliver us from the depths of despair and the dark hours of the absence of friendliness. The deck shivered beneath her feet. She kept her eyes open, focused on the forward bulkhead.
A long moment passed, then another. Their own engine noise was blended with the cataract-thunder of water flowing over strange steel. The maneuver was successful. Saber was masked by Samara’s cavitation, hiding in her baffles.
Sherwood blew out an explosive breath. "You did it, skipper," he said, a note of awe in his voice. Chief of the Watch Halliday grinned hugely, as did Officer of the Deck Xiang.
Bonney suppressed an answering smile. "There’s still work to do," she said, making herself stern. "Stay on your toes, Nathan. Don’t forget – Romanov’s a wily old sea-dog with plenty of tricks up his sleeve. Secure from silent and sound General Quarters."
"Aye, sir." Sherwood completed his task and went to talk to Lt. Monroe.
Bonney shook her head.
We aren’t out of the woods yet. Romanov’s still searching… and he’s going to find us eventually.
She looked at Emerson, who was standing behind the weapons console. An idea struck her. "Amelia,’ Bonney said, using the agent’s given name without thought, "why does Romanov want to sink us? He could just make a run for any port in the world. We weren’t even threatening him when he fired the first time. Why would he make a stand, especially when he’s carrying such precious cargo? It doesn’t make sense."
The 1MC crackled. "Conn, Sonar… I have new contact! Sir, it’s a surface ship, bearing zero three four degrees, range two nautical miles and closing at ten knots."
Emerson let out a curse that would have done a Chief Petty Officer proud.
"What is it?" Bonney asked. She was beginning to like the CIA Agent, although she would not have confessed this new-found affection under torture.
"The answer to your question." Emerson pointed upward. "The reason Romanov hasn’t run is because he’s been waiting for his buyer. That’s why he’s so anxious to get rid of Saber!"
Bonney rubbed her upper lip. "Makes sense. He can’t afford interference in his plans."
"Sir," said Xiang, "radio room reports they’ve intercepted a transmission from Samara."
"Mr. Sherwood, you have the conn," Bonney said. "Agent Emerson, kindly join me in the radio room."
"Aye-aye, captain," Emerson trilled, snapping off a salute that made Sherwood snort in disapproval.
Yes, I like this woman more and more, Bonney said to herself. She’s bright, she’s funny – when she digs the bugs out of her ass – and she’s a helluva looker. Oh, get hold of yourself, girl, she thought in disgust. Amelia Emerson’s a black-bag CIA operative, you’re the captain of a $800 million U.S. Navy submarine. Old Goat-foot’ll be ice-skating in Hell before the two of you get together.
"Are you coming?" Emerson asked, pausing by the captain.
Bonney shook off her momentary brown study. "On my way," she replied, determined to keep unwelcome thoughts at bay… no matter how much it might cost her later.
"The transmission came from designated contact Kursk to the surface vessel," the radio operator said. She was a scrawny brunette with bad skin and gorgeous blue eyes. "Kinda scratchy but not encoded, straight off the ELF. Here’s the text, sir." She handed a legal pad to Captain Bonney, who scrutinized the handwritten message on the page. "I also recorded the transmission according to regs."
"What do you make of this?" Bonney asked Emerson.
For a giddy moment, Emerson considered folding the paper into an origami giraffe, or perhaps a penguin. She bit back an inappropriate giggle and took the pad. It had been too long since she had had a decent night’s sleep. The smell on the submarine was not conducive to restfulness, either – it was a peculiar mixture of diesel fuel, diesel exhaust (strange on a nuclear powered sub), cooking oil, lubricants, ozone from the high-voltage electrical systems and amines from the atmospheric control systems. The odor, plus the feeling of being surrounded on all sides by enough pressure to turn her into a wet red smear, not to mention the thermoluminescent dosimeter she had to wear clipped to her BDUs to measure radiation exposure, kept the agent’s hackles on permanent rise.
Scanning the message sobered her quickly. Emerson said, "Romanov is supposed to rendezvous with Vasily Borysko."
"Who’s the new player?"
"Borysko is former GRU, Soviet military intelligence," Emerson said, blue eyes glittering with dislike. "He’s responsible for some of the atrocities in Chechnya in the latter half of the ‘90’s. Ethnic turmoil, my ass. By all accounts, Borysko loved his job, went on to slaughter Serbs in Bosnia under the guise of interrogation. This guy’s a brutal thug, a sociopath without a trace of conscience, Anne. He’d kill the world if he could find a knife big enough to cut its collective throat."
The captain folded her arms across her chest. "So what’s a low-brow killer like Borysko doing out in the Caribbean?"
Emerson tugged her earlobe in thought. "He sometimes works as an independent contractor for a neo-Nazi faction in South America, headed by an ancient S.S. officer who travels incognito to Switzerland every year for anti-aging gene therapy treatments. Hmm… Borysko must be here to pick up the microchip and deliver it to Herr Gottschalk. I wonder if Romanov’s Govnodavy group is working with der Blitzschlag. That would explain some rumblings we’ve heard in Argentina and Columbia. Is there any way I can get a message through to the Agency?"
"Not without broadcasting it to the whole Fleet. There’s relay buoys all over the Atlantic but we’d have to surface to link to SLCSAT." Bonney pronounced it ‘slick-sat.’ At Emerson’s raised eyebrow, she explained, "Submarine Laser Communications Satellite. We can transmit and receive via satellite, just not at our current depth. Saber would have to go topside for that, which is why we use ELF when submerged."
"Extreme Low Frequency," the radio operator said. "The lower the frequency, the more deeply a signal can be received in seawater. ELF operates at 3 to 300 hertz."
"Damn." Emerson bit her lower lip. "Borysko is designated a primary target to be terminated if practical." It was the captain’s turn to raise her brow. Emerson said, "He caught one of our low-level operatives in Algiers a couple of years ago. Tortured her to death slowly, even though the woman didn’t know anything of importance. He amputated from the toes up, cauterized the wounds to keep her from bleeding out."
The agent swallowed hard. "He ate her, Anne, over a two week period, one slice at a time. Cooked the flesh right in front of her like a goddamned Escoffier graduate. Her heart finally gave out from shock when he excised the second thigh."
"Jesus!" Bonney recoiled. "Just… Jesus!"
Emerson’s voice was flat and rigidly controlled. "She was a friend of mine. I trained with her at the Farm."
A midshipman hovered in the hatchway, obviously eavesdropping. He had turned an unappetizing shade of green. Bonney went over to the young man, saying, "What’s your name, sailor?"
"Uh, Peterson, sir." He gulped. Emerson felt her gorge rising in sympathy.
Bonney gave him a crisp nod. "Go forward to the crew’s head, son, before you lose your cookies. Chief Halliday doesn’t let any of his deck apes swab after loose stomachs. Go on, now, before you end up having to clean the whole compartment and re-shine the brass." Her tone was rather gentle, at odds with the stiffness of her posture.
"A few years ago, back in ’10, I had to take a group of midshipmen to the North Atlantic with a skeleton crew on training maneuvers in a refitted Barracuda-class hunter-killer," Bonney said conversationally, leaning against the edge of the hatchway. She played with the long lanyard attached to the trouser pocket of her coverall; a collection of keys at the end jingled softly in counterpoint to her voice. "The Bonito was roughly the same age as our Kursk out there. We made it as far as the Denmark Straight without too much hassle when something went wrong.
"There was an explosion in one of the torpedo tubes; a practice fish had malfunctioned, causing ignition of fuel residue, which caused fire in the compartment, lots of steam and smoke. We surfaced, and there was a problem with the reactor. In the confusion – so many alarms going off, it was like a knocking shop on payday - the chief nuclear technician was not at his duty station. We were short-handed in experienced personnel and Chief Davis was leading the fire suppression team. I had ordered the trainees to evacuate, but one of them stayed behind."
Bonney stared ahead, apparently lost in the past. "An electrical short meant that the computer didn’t SCRAM. See, a nuclear reactor is a furnace, fueled by radioactive material – a golfball sized chunk of plutonium, to be exact. Heat from the reactor turns water into steam, which turns the screws and makes electricity flow. Intensity of output is controlled by halfnium rods whose retraction from the core allows more reactions and more heat; lowering the rods has the opposite effect. A SCRAM occurs when sensors detect a problem in the system so severe, the rods are automatically dropped into the core, shutting down the reactor.
"The midshipman left in temporary command of the nuclear control room – Jimmy McAllister - knew he had to initiate an emergency shutdown of the core. He pulled the rod control switch and the damned thing broke off in his hand. That room was full of smoke, real toxic shit, hotter than hell, but he didn’t abandon his duty. Somehow, McAllister found a screwdriver and jury-rigged the switch to the rods-in position. Later engineering calculations showed that Bonito was about six seconds away from a steam explosion that would’ve breached the hull. McAllister prevented the accident but died of smoke inhalation. Chief Davis and I found him at the nuclear plant control panel. McAllister was a smart young man, Amelia. He saved everyone’s lives that day. He would’ve made a good officer."
Emerson did not know what to say, but to remain silent felt crass. "Do you think about McAllister often?" she asked.
"Every day and every night." Bonney’s mouth quirked. "I’m the commanding officer, which means that everything that happens is ultimately my responsibility. I should never have accepted that training run, not without ensuring the proper amount of trained personnel. I should’ve made sure that the reactor was being tended by someone other than a kid with no practical experience, who had no idea that there were emergency breathing hoods not two feet from where we found his dead body. I should’ve run more safety drills. I should’ve made goddamned certain that all the midshipmen were off the boat instead of leaving the head-count to a fellow cadet who was probably pissing himself in panic."
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "My point is, Amelia, that if I had command of Bonito again under exactly those same circumstances, I’d probably order McAllister to stay in the nuclear control room to prevent a runaway reactor accident if there was no other option. Sending crewmen into danger is part of my duty, as is doing my utmost to keep the majority alive. Sacrificing one man so the rest can live – that’s considered an acceptable casualty. Sacrificing a hundred-odd crewmen and Saber itself to avert a war and thus, save millions of lives, may be an acceptable casualty, too. Do you understand? There are children on this vessel who may not grow up if I attempt to destroy Romanov."
Bonney’s eyes opened and her gaze met Emerson’s. The agent felt as if she was being seared straight down to her soul. "Is the outcome worth the cost?" Bonney asked.
Emerson forced herself to meet that burning gaze. "Yes," she answered confidently, although years of Agency training and blood-soaked experience had not hardened her enough to prevent unshed tears from prickling. "Yes, destroying Romanov is worth any cost."
"Very well." Bonney tucked the lanyard back into her pocket. "Report any further communications directly to me," she told the radio operator, "or the XO."
Bonney flicked open the 1MC. "All hands, battle stations! Repeat, all hands to battle stations! This is not a drill!"
A klaxon alarm sounded, irritating as a mosquito buzz.
Bonney squared her shoulders. "Let’s go and catch us an Ivan, Amelia Peabody Emerson."
"Right behind you, Anne Bonney."
"And may the Lord God have mercy on our souls," Bonney said, and stepped lively for the conn as though the burdens she carried were lighter than air.
The atmosphere in the conn was razor-wire tense but bustling with activity. Emerson thought she could smell the distinct reek of nervous flop sweat coming from a couple of midshipmen who were stationed at various consoles. Upon reaching the control room, Bonney made a ship-wide announcement over the 1MC.
"Attention all hands: this is the captain speaking. Saber is being pursued by an adversary with hostile intent, a criminal who is actively hunting this boat with the intention of destroying us in order to further an agenda that will foster war and harm our country. He has already fired upon us without warning – a cowardly act - and missed, which will prove his undoing. I am hereby ordering Saber to combat-readiness. We’ve hidden in the shadows long enough. Now is the time for our adversary to learn that the brave men and women of the USSN Saber are submariners who will not retreat in the face of an enemy. That is all."
Bonney clicked off the mic. "Keep an eye on that Christmas tree," she said to a midshipman monitoring the boat’s condition board. The board contained red and green lights indicating the status of the valves, hatches and ballast tanks. Since they were submerged, every light was green.
Rohan entered the control room, eyes wide, avidly drinking in the spectacle. She seemed oblivious to the danger they were in. For the first time, Emerson found herself reluctantly admiring the plump woman’s calm.
"Plot firing solution. Flood tubes one and two," Bonney ordered the Chief of the Boat. "Open outer doors."
"Opening outer doors, aye."
The internal comm squawked. "Conn, Sonar… Crazy Ivan!"
"All engines full stop!" barked COB Fitzsimmons. "Quick quiet!"
The ever-present thrum of the engines died. Lights strobed for a moment, then settled to a dull, hot crimson that made the control room seem like a vestibule of Hell. Emerson felt a hot rush in her bowels, accompanied by a cold gush of sweat from armpits, brow and the small of her back. It never failed, the body’s instinctive reaction to danger. She glanced over at Bonney, saw that the captain was looking back at her. Emerson forced herself to smile, the tightness of the expression actually causing physical pain.
Bonney’s answering smile was devil-may-care, almost jovial. "As soon as Samara resumes course," she said softly, "take us to depth one five zero." She picked up the heavy black mic of the sub’s internal com and pressed a button. "Sonar, Conn… where’s that surface contact?"
"Holding steady at zero four zero off the starboard bow," Murphy answered. "She’s put out her sea anchor, sir."
"Very good, Mr. Murphy." Bonney racked the mic. "Where’s that firing solution?"
"Fire solution locked, sir," called the weapons officer. "Presets accepted, tubes one and two are ready in all respects."
"Conn, Sonar," came from the 1MC, "there is a fish in the water. Repeat, there is a fish in the water, contact at two thousand yards and closing, bearing one six zero starboard." There was a pause, then, "Torpedo has acquired."
"Flank speed, left full rudder," Bonney said. "Launch counter-measures!"
"Launching counter-measures, aye!"
"Helm, come about to heading one six zero."
Beside the captain, Sherwood looked startled. "Sir, that takes us directly into the torpedo’s path."
"Yes, it does," Bonney replied calmly.
"Conn, Sonar… torpedo is one thousand yards and closing fast…"
"I don’t…" Sherwood stopped, comprehension dawning on his swarthy face. Emerson bit down the urge to throttle him and everyone else in the control room, including the captain, for doing crazy things like heading towards a torpedo instead of away from it.
"Skipper," Sherwood continued, "if this doesn’t work…"
Bonney nodded. "We go boom. Nathan, let’s hope that the old bubble-heads who bored us to death with their sea stories weren’t stinkin’ liars through and through."
Emerson realized that she was gritting her jaw so hard, her teeth were in danger of splintering. She managed to pry her lips apart enough to ask, "What the hell’s going on?"
"Patience, Agent Emerson," Bonney said.
The approaching torpedo was pinging furiously. The metallic sound was like a hammer pounding through Saber’s pressure hull, faster and faster, louder and louder, until it became an almost unbroken squeal. Emerson wanted to cover her ears and scream. She screwed her eyes shut and braced herself, wondering if she was going to die in the explosion, drown as water poured through the shattered hull, be crushed by pressure when the sub sank, or just drop dead of a heart attack on the spot.
Sonar reported, "One zero zero yards, five zero yards, four zero yards…"
Bonney calmly said into the 1MC, "All hands, brace for impact."
Emerson fought the urge to hunker down and curl into a ball.
There was a rather anti-climatic thunk as the torpedo hit Saber’s hull and bounced off, failing to explode.
"Bring us about to zero four zero, make your speed one-third. Firing point procedures," Bonney said, "tubes one and two."
"Aye, sir!" Sherwood almost sang.
"Flood tubes three and four but hold the fish," Bonney said. "On my mark, let’s fire a pair of water slugs at him."
The weapons control officer jerked in surprise, but verified the order.
Emerson pried her hand off the back of the chair she had been gripping – giving silent mental apologies to the technician sitting there, who had been forced to endure the stench of her fear – and walked on rubbery knees to the captain’s side.
"Anne, I’ve done wet work ops in many corners of the globe," the CIA agent said quietly, amazed that the words emerged without a quiver. "I’ve faced fanatics who would throw themselves in front of a bullet if it meant taking out an enemy, too. I’ve HALO’d into hostile territory with nothing but a knife and a coil of rope. Death’s my lover and my best friend. I thought I’d seen it all, done it all, but I have never, in my entire career, been so shit-scared as I was a couple of minutes ago."
"Ah, sorry about that, Amelia," Bonney said, and she seemed sincere, although her attention was split between the operative and the apparent chaos in the control room. "I’d heard that Russian sub commanders maintain high safety protocols on their torpedoes. There were quite a few instances of rogue torpedoes missing their target, turning around and acquiring the sub they had been fired from. Plus in the old USSR days, they preferred to fire a single shot at a time to preserve ordinance because Mother Russia didn’t have torpedoes to waste.
"By moving into the torpedo’s path, it didn’t have time to arm itself. Romanov will take the safeties off now, so that trick won’t work again."
Bonney went to the periscope. "Fire tubes three and four!" Out of the side of her mouth, she said to Emerson, who had followed her, "Water slugs are just that – ram pressure in the torpedo tube’ll send out a jet of water that makes a deep rumbling sound and can be mistaken for a real torpedo launch. Romanov will dive deep and turn to re-acquire us as soon as his sonar confirms no presence of torpedo screws."
"Contact Kursk is turning, sir, heading one six zero," Murphy reported from the sonar shack.
"Make your depth six zero feet," Bonney said to the diving office.
Lt. Monroe turned to stare in disbelief. "Periscope depth, sir?"
"Yes, depth to six zero feet."
"But sir, we’re underhulling the surface contact."
"Thank you, Lieutenant, I’m fully aware of our position. Do I have to repeat myself a third time?" Bonney asked. "Do you have a problem carrying out my orders?"
"No, sir." The diving officer passed a hand over her neatly styled auburn hair, tugged at the collar of her coverall and said, "Depth six zero feet, aye."
"Sir, contact Kursk has launched counter-measures," Murphy’s voice came from the ship’s com. "Kursk has flooded tubes… outer doors open. Kursk is preparing to fire."
Bonney nodded. "Verify our range to target. One ping, max power. Let’s hammer his sonar."
"Aye, sir! One ping only, maximum power." Sherwood punched a button to trigger active sonar. The high-pitched crystalline sound raced through the cold blue depths and impacted on the Samara’s hull with a loud PONG that could be heard inside Saber.
The COB said, "Sir, solid solution! Range four thousand one zero zero yards, depth one five zero feet, angle on the port bow five degrees."
"Very well, Mr. Fitzsimmons. On my mark, fire tubes one and two."
Rohan reached out and clutched Emerson’s arm. "Exciting, isn’t it?" she murmured.
Emerson considered swatting the civilian but Bonney’s warning glance made her subside.
"Conn, Sonar… two fish in the water!" Murphy shouted from the com. "Repeat, there are two fish in the water! Four thousand yards and closing fast. ETA three minutes."
"Wait for it," Bonney muttered. "A Mark 48 torpedo swims at approximately 1,300 yards per minute." She closed her eyes. The look on her face was one of absolute peace and calm.
Emerson’s heart clenched in her chest. At that moment, she wanted to forget everything else and kiss Anne Bonney until both of them were breathless. A sloppy kiss, all teeth and tongue and spit, no holding back. It would be the most exciting three minutes of their lives – she could guarantee it. However, on the off chance that they might actually live through the situation, Emerson could not bring herself to act so irresponsibly. Besides, Bonney would probably remove her liver with a fishing gaff for breaking ship’s discipline.
Sonar reported, "Contacts have acquired." Pinging sounds rang against the pressure hull. "Three thousand yards… two thousand yards…"
Bonney recited a snatch of Kipling beneath her breath,
"Who hath desired the sea – the sight of salt water unbounded,
The heave and the halt and the hurl and the crash of the comber wind-hounded?
The sleek-barelled swell before storm, gray, foamless, enormous, and growing –
Stark calm on the lap of the Line or the crazy-eyed hurricane blowing?"
Sherwood contributed, "I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide/
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied."
Emerson snorted and countered with Arthur Guiterman’s parody:
"I must go down to the seas again, though there I’m a total loss,
And I can’t say which is worst: the pitch, the plunge, the roll, the toss.
But all I ask is a safe retreat in a bar well tended,
And a soft berth and a smooth course till the long trip’s ended."
Bonney’s bark of laughter rang through the control room. "Touché, Amelia. That’s pricked a hole in our romantic notions but good."
The 1MC squawked. "Contacts at five hundred yards and closing."
Instantly, Bonney’s good humor vanished. Sober once more, the lines of her body tensed.
Emerson nearly bit through her own lower lip as the strain of waiting sawed at her nerves.
Bonney waited until sonar reported the torpedoes at one hundred yards before she shouted, "Emergency deep! Left full rudder! Sound collision alarm!"
Officers and crewmen sprang into action. "Full speed!" ordered Lt. Monroe, while COW Halliday flooded the depth control tanks. The planesmen implemented a ten degree down bubble, headed to a safe 150-foot depth to clear the top of the sail from overhead obstructions. A klaxon blared and the noise seemed likely to split Emerson’s skull in half.
Emerson felt like she was on an express elevator. Her stomach lifted while the rest of her plummeted, then that unhappy organ dropped abruptly to join the rest. She gulped, immediately nauseous and headachy, and struggled against the surge of gravity that was trying to plaster her to the deck.
Whump! The sound of an explosion rippled through Saber, rocking her violently. The submarine shuddered under the heavy vibrations, an underwater earthquake that rattled teeth and bones. Emerson was faintly surprised to discover that she was still alive.
Rohan said, "How clever! Captain Bonney maneuvered Saber between the surface contact and the Kursk. Firing those water slugs the first time was like thumbing her nose at Romanov – understand? Giving him the finger big time. I guess it pissed him off because he fired two torpedoes at us. The captain waited until the torpedoes were close then made an emergency dive, turning at the same time. The torpedoes missed and hit the surface ship!"
Emerson’s brain had taken quite a beating; she was not certain she had heard correctly. "What?" When the plump woman did not elucidate further but merely stared at her, the agent grabbed her by the upper arms and shook her slightly. "What did you say?"
Rohan jerked herself out of Emerson’s grasp. "Jeez, take a chill pill, would ya?" At Emerson’s impatient growl, she said, "The ship above us – the second contact, remember? – I hope it wasn’t one of ours because Captain Bonney just tricked the Kursk into a kill shot."
"Goddammit!" Emerson’s triumphant yell rang through the conn. She grinned hugely at Bonney. "You got Borysko! You got that sadistic cannibal bastard!"
"Yes, we did," Bonney said. "Now we have to nail Romanov, which might be a trickier proposition. Mr. Sherwood, re-verify our range to target."
Sherwood pressed the button for active sonar. A single ping chimed.
"Solution remains solid, sir!" called the weapons officer.
"Fire tubes one and two!" Bonney ordered.
Tension crackled. The relief Emerson had felt was replaced by even higher levels of stress. Would Romanov be destroyed or would he get away? She did not relish an underwater chase that could end in disaster. The next time Assistant Director Kowalski tries to assign me a mission that requires anything more complicated than a Dragunov sniper rifle, I’m going to choke him to death with his toupee.
"Torpedoes have acquired target," Murphy reported over the 1MC. "Two thousand yards… target is attempting evasive turn..."
"Maintain sonar lock," Bonney said into the mic. She switched her attention to Sherwood. "Stand by the chicken switches. If he evades our fish and launches a counter-attack, I want us ready for an emergency blow."
"Aye, sir." The XO positioned himself near a series of hydraulic control levers.
Rohan said, "Pulling the chicken switches will expel 3,000 psi into the ballast tanks from the high pressure air banks. It’ll create enough buoyancy to send us straight up and out of the water, like a whale broaching the surface."
"Aren’t you Little Miss Smart-Ass?" Emerson snapped.
"Excuse me for living!" Rohan huffed, and flounced over to Captain Bonney.
"One thousand yards," intoned Murphy. "Five hundred yards… torpedo maintains tracking… estimate impact in thirty seconds."
Rohan reached over and gripped Bonney’s hand, squeezing. The captain did not appear to notice, but Emerson did. Her silent snarl did not faze the plump brunette at all.
"Torpedo impact!" Murphy hollered. "We clipped his screws, sir. Target is blowing ballast."
"Helm, take us up." Bonney said. "Status report, COB?"
Fitzsimmons hung up the ship’s com. "One of Cookie’s galley slaves was mildly burned by unsecured gravy in the crew’s mess, an assistant engineer sprained his thumb, and we’ve sprung a small leak in the afterbattery."
Sherwood was peering through the eyepiece of periscope one. "Scope’s breaking; no contacts," he said.
"Very well," Bonney said, pulling her hand out of Rohan’s grasp and giving the woman a small smile of reassurance. "Chief Fitzsimmons, have an armed security detail meet us topside on the walking deck. Handlers to the boat locker; rig one seven-man for dry deck launch."
"Aye, sir," said the COB.
"Contact! Kursk bearing forty-five degrees off the starboard bow," Sherwood said.
Bonney paused. "Oh, and chief?"
"Return Agent Emerson’s sidearm. She’ll be accompanying us to the Samara."
Emerson punched the air with a fist and a silent, Yes!
Rohan gazed at her in co-mingled pity and disgust.
Emerson did not resist the urge to be childish for a moment. Sheer relief at being alive and intact made her a bit crazy. She stuck out her tongue and shook her hips in a salsa move that her Latin Champion mother had made (in)famous. The CIA agent’s face went hot crimson when Bonney whipped around and caught her mid-silliness.
"Save the end-zone funky chicken for later," the captain said, unsuccessfully covering a snicker with a snort. "First we’ve got to secure Romanov and his friends."
Rohan smirked at her, and Emerson bared her teeth in a feral not-grin.
Almost twice the size of Saber, the Samara loomed huge on the surface, looking like Melville’s legendary whale in a sleek, matte black skin.
"Call me Ishmael," Bonney said, causing Emerson to chuckle.
"I read Moby Dick in high school," the agent confessed. "Or rather, I struggled through Moby Dick, which is a boring piece of literature compared to, say, the Garbage Pail Kids."
"Oh, Lord, I remember those." Bonney rolled her eyes. In her youth, she had found the controversial bubble gum cards mildly gross, sometimes disturbing and good for a giggle. The cartoon kids with their snot, puke and pus had resembled Cabbage Patch dolls gone horribly wrong. "Blasted Bert, Heavin’ Steven, Frigid Bridget…"
"Who? I don’t remember…"
"Ah, but that’s from the unpublished 16th series set, which I found in a dumpster outside the Topps factory in ’89." Emerson seemed quite proud of her accomplishment and willing to wax eloquent on what must have been a favorite subject. "I even have a rare Semi Colin card from the 9th series. Oooh, and I’ve got my eye on an uncut 1st series sheet, but the guy wants a flippin’ mint…" Her voice trailed off as she realized that the COB and the four-man security detail were staring at her.
"Hey, some people collect teapots. Some people collect matchbooks. I collect Garbage Pail Kids," Emerson huffed. "Deal with it!"
Bonney gave the detail an evil eye. "As you were," she said. The captain felt oddly protective towards Amelia Emerson. She even found the agent’s quirky card collection endearing. I wonder what would happen if I kissed her… Bonney shook her head. It was not a good time to deal in idle speculation.
"Aye-aye, skipper!" the COB said. To the men wielding the boat paddles, he growled, "Double time, you sons-a-bitches, and put your backs into it!"
The sail of the Samara appeared to be impossibly high, a tower that scraped the upturned bowl of the sky, where a clear bright sun blazed. The Caribbean waters were like green and blue glass, clear and warm with a scattering of wind-whipped foam. Bonney squinted against the salt spray and scintillating diamonds of light reflected from the waves. She felt a bump against the bottom of the rubber boat and wondered if it was a shark or some other curious fish, nosing the strange device that had invaded their liquid world.
Emerson looked remotely beautiful, a black-clad goddess carved from marble and onyx, with twin sapphires acting as her eyes. When she smiled, Bonney found herself smiling back helplessly. Ah, God, I could really fall for her, the captain thought. I could lose my heart.
The hatch on top of the sail opened; a man’s pale face stared down at them. "Dobry’den," he called, a hint of nervousness in his tone.
"Dobry’den. Govorite li’vy po angliyski?" Bonney called back. Do you speak English?
"Da, pazhalsta… Kapitan says come aboard."
"I’ll bet he does," Emerson grunted. She shrugged and rolled her shoulders, then snapped her wrist forward. A gleaming knife shot out of her sleeve. The agent put it back into its spring-loaded sheath, checked the holster of her sidearm, and wiped salt water droplets off her face. "Let’s go," she said shortly, all deadly business and grace.
Transferring from the rubber boat to the Samara – which was listing slightly to one side – was not as difficult as Bonney had feared it might be. For once, the sea was cooperative, remaining relatively still and calm. The anechoic tiles fastened to the outer skin provided good, non-slip footing. Everyone managed to make it to the walking deck without getting soaked, although no one escaped a mild dampening.
The long climb up the ladder to the top of the sail gave Bonney time to think. She had left instructions with Sherwood to blow the hell out of Samara if the Russian sub so much as twitched. Of course, if Romanov decided to kill them all and commit suicide-by-torpedo, there would not be much she could do about it. Sweat sprang out on her brow. Bonney was glad that she could blame it on the hot Caribbean sun.
"Don’t worry, Anne," murmured Emerson, who was right behind her. So close, in fact, that Bonney could feel the other woman’s body heat about an eighth of an inch away from her buttocks. "I won’t let him harm you."
Strangely, this softly-spoken reassurance calmed Bonney’s nerves considerably.
On the inside, Samara proved to be not so different from Saber. The group was escorted to the control room. COB Fitzsimmons had previously relayed the captain’s orders to the security detail – no shooting unless a direct threat was made. No one wanted to start blasting away inside a submarine without good cause; the equipment did not react well to bullets.
Kapitan Arkady Romanov and former CIA agent John Makepeace were waiting in the control room. Makepeace looked like a wild man; his straw-colored hair stood up in quaffs and there was a rising bruise on one cheekbone.
"You!" he spat, eyes narrowing at the sight of Emerson. "I might’ve known."
"Why’d you kill Orlando Stewart?" Emerson asked, coming forward a half-step to interpose her body between Makepeace and Bonney. "I thought the two of you were thick as thieves."
"He suffered a crisis of conscience," Makepeace sneered. "Poor Orlando couldn’t handle the thought of killing those innocent civilians on the schooner." His cold brown gaze flicked from one person to the other, rarely setting for longer than a few seconds. "I couldn’t leave him to run tattle-telling to the Agency, could I?"
Romanov’s gaze was even colder. Artificial light glinted from his thick mane of silver hair. "I must request amnesty for my crew," he said in excellent English, lightly tinged with Oxford rather than Moscow. "They followed my orders."
"That excuse didn’t fly at Neuremburg and it isn’t going to cut any ice with me now," Emerson said, elbowing Bonney back when the captain attempted to step in front of her. "Where’s the microchip?"
"Microchip?" Romanov’s eyebrows met at the bridge of his nose as he frowned. "What microchip?"
"Yeah," Makepeace echoed. "What microchip, Amelia?"
Emerson said, "The one you were sent to retrieve from the downed bird on Royal Isle."
Bonney was growing impatient. She shoved the taller woman aside and said in Russian, "Kapitan Romanov, I require your surrender."
Romanov inclined his head. "Of course you do, my dear," he replied.
And all hell broke loose.
To Emerson’s horror, Makepeace pulled out a pistol and fired point-blank at Captain Bonney. Emerson tried to shield the woman but Bonney collapsed to the deck, a growing bloodstain on the front of her coverall. Against the navy blue color, the blood appeared black.
Emerson had studied a number of martial arts – tae kwan do, jeet kun do, akido, Shaolin, Indonesian silek, Russian Army systema, Samoan pi’inga wrestling, Maori rongomamau empty-hand techniques and native lua from the Hawaiian isles. She had blended these styles together to form a unique defense and attack system. Emerson also practiced self-hypnosis and could trigger adrenaline at will.
She did so, speaking the trigger word into the silence of her mind. Her heart pumped blood filled with endorphins, dopamine and other chemicals through her body, increasing strength and speed and reaction time. Her lungs expanded; her pupils constricted to pinpoints. Emerson’s body was covered in a fine sheen of sweat as her brain instinctively tried to keep her rising temperature in check. The fine hairs on her arms and legs tingled; goosebumps rose on her skin, squeezing vital blood from capillaries back into muscle tissue.
Time slowed to a trickle.
To anyone watching, Emerson struck with the speed of a cobra, her movements a blur. Makepeace, himself a highly trained operative, moved fast to counter her, but not fast enough. A slash of her hand sent his pistol flying. Romanov made a dive for it but Emerson was quicker – her leg came around at a seemingly impossible angle and caught the Russian across his jaw, knocking him to the deck.
"Yob ty’vou mat!" Romanov grunted, fishing inside his uniform tunic. Emerson ducked into Makepeace’s guard, hit him across the throat with her forearm, and stepped back to kick Romanov in the gut. She followed it up with a punch to his chin, putting power into the blow. His head snapped back, a spurt of blood at his mouth.
Makepeace was sidling up behind her; she caught the movement out of the corner of her eye. Spinning on a heel, Emerson shook her knife into her hand and slashed as she turned, catching the rogue agent across the face. Drawing back a little, she made a series of lightning-fast stabs to Makepeace’s inner thighs and stomach, across his abdomen, into his throat. Bleeding from numerous wounds – all of them fatal – Makepeace went down in a heap, convulsing as rooster tails of arterial spray painted the walls.
The entire assault, from start to finish, had taken less than fifteen seconds.
Breath coming in harsh pants, Emerson sucked air and said to Romanov, "Don’t talk about my mother!" She realized that the Russian was dead, his eyes glassy and staring sightlessly upward. The last punch she had made to his face had broken his neck.
Fitzsimmons was kneeling beside Bonney, both hands pressed against the hole in the side of her chest. Emerson dropped her knife and fell to her knees, not feeling the harsh bite of the deck through her black BDUs. "Oh, God… Annie… what’ve you done to yourself, girl?"
"Wasn’t me," Bonney replied in a whisper.
Emerson was relieved to see no bloody foam or flecks on the captain’s lips - signs of lung damage. "Did you send for the Doc?" she asked Fitzsimmons.
Beneath his five o’clock shadow, the chief was pale. "It’ll be a few minutes," he said. "Goddammit, I should’ve seen the gun."
Bonney’s eyelids fluttered. "Not your fault, COB."
"Hush." Emerson laid her hands atop Fitzsimmon’s. "Chief, take what’s left of the detail and secure this boat. We don’t want some bezkozirka sergeant getting delusions of grandeur."
"Aye, ma’am. You’ll take care of the skipper?"
"You bet your life, COB." Emerson gave him a crooked smile that belied the thundering of her heart, the sickness that ate at her until she felt light-headed and hollow. Part of that was reaction to the adrenaline, the fight-or-flight response that left her shaking and sweaty. The other was concern for the captain’s welfare.
Once Fitzsimmons and the security detail had gone, Emerson allowed some of her weakness to show - her shoulders slumped, her spine curled until her face was close to Bonney’s, so close she could see the tiny freckles on the woman’s nose. Her hands never shifted, however, keeping up constant firm pressure against the wound.
"Stay with me," Emerson breathed. "Please."
"Wouldn’t work." Bonney let out a sigh. "Too different…"
"Variety is the spice of life," Emerson countered. Her blue eyes filled with tears. "We haven’t known each other that long, Annie. I’d like the chance to get to know you better."
Bonney’s eyes opened momentarily; the emerald green depths reminded Emerson of the sea. "I don’t know. You… me… our careers…"
"Tell you what." Emerson felt a surge of desperation. She pressed her hands against the captain’s side as though she could keep the woman’s body and soul together by brute strength and the force of her will. "Let’s try, okay? You and me. Wherever you want, whenever you want. Okay? Hey, Annie… look at me, darlin’. Open those gorgeous green eyes. Don’t you dare go, Anne Bonney, you hear me? Fight, dammit! Fight!"
A rattling breath escaped Bonney’s lips, and Emerson sobbed in despair.
"Please," she begged softly, not knowing who she was addressing – God, or Death himself, or the woman who had touched her heart.
"Don’t leave me behind."
20° N, 157° W, 2400 miles from the U.S. mainland
The island of Hawai’i
Rohan Tarnach rolled over on her towel and stretched, yawning. Ka’upulehu Beach was gorgeous, all white sand and a few scattered palm trees, a view of the ocean unobstructed by obnoxious condominiums and tourist facilities. It was peaceful, too; just a few seagulls and fluffy white clouds scudding across the impossibly blue sky.
No surfers, no jet-skiers, no body boarders, no boats, no tourists, no snorklers, no whale watchers… just me and a cooler full of piña coladas. Ah, bliss!
Since her Cruise-to-Nowhere had proved disastrous – so many people had died, and she would never really recover from that trauma – Rohan had decided to take another holiday, abandoning the Atlantic in favor of the Pacific. This time, I’m staying on dry land. Spending a few days on a submarine might’ve been fun, if only Agent Emerson hadn’t been there.
Once the all-important microchip had been retrieved from the safe in Samara’s captain’s stateroom, and Bonney had been evacuated by helicopter to a mainland hospital to be treated for her bullet wound, Emerson had gone completely feral. She had stalked through Saber’s passageways snarling and snapping until the most even-tempered crewman was ready to chop her into chum with a dull bait knife. Sailing into Key West had been a great relief. Rohan had never been happier to get away from anyone in her life.
Of course, the part that came afterwards was not much fun, either. She had been debriefed twice – once by Naval Intelligence, and again by CIA operatives. Possibly someone from the NSA had sat in, too. Rohan had grown sick and tired of repeating the same story over and over again. Getting away to Hawai’i seemed an excellent way of de-stressing.
She slid her sunglasses down her nose, checked the sun, and decided it was time to re-apply sunscreen. As Rohan rubbed the coconut-scented cream into her skin, she noticed a jeep had parked up the beach. Oh, damn. There goes my privacy.
Two women emerged from the jeep. The driver – tall and lean, black hair whipping in the salt-laden ocean breeze – ran around the front to help the passenger, who was shorter and blonde. Startled, Rohan dropped the bottle of sunscreen. No, it can’t be!
They were too far away for Rohan to make out the women’s faces. She cursed her lack of foresight. She should have brought binoculars; the hotel rented them to whale watchers and dolphin spotters. She sat up straight, the wind snatching at her hair. The women waved to her in a friendly manner and began setting up their own towels and cooler.
It can’t be Anne Bonney and Amelia Peabody Emerson, Rohan thought. The last she had heard – COW Halliday had become an irregular e-mail correspondent – the captain was recuperating in Bethesda Naval Hospital, and Agent Emerson had been assigned a mission in Istanbul. Then again, that was more than a month ago.
Overhead, a seagull screeched. Wings outstretched, the bird rode the air currents as easily as Saber had glided beneath the waves.
Oh, well, Rohan thought, lying back down to enjoy the sun, sand and surf. Anything’s possible in this crazy world, even a blossoming romance between a Navy commander and a CIA agent. Why not? Stranger things have happened, if this is happening at all.
Ah, to hell with it!
She closed her eyes, relaxed, and just breathed.
"My window opens upon the sea
And the smell of the sea comes in to me -
And the voice of the sea that calls and calls,
And the sea's hands beating upon my walls.
Sometimes I wake in the night and hear
The sound of the sea, and it seems so near
That I wonder how I have strength of will
To listen and listen and lie so still.
I wonder how I can stay in bed
With a smoth'ring ceiling over my head!
I envy the men who can dip and ride
And drown, if they will, in the brown, salt tide.
Oh why is a half-grown lad so free
To pack up his clothes and put out to sea,
While a maid must live out her life on shore
Mending and washing and sweeping the floor?
Some moonless night, when the sky is black,
I'll run away and I'll never come back;
And maybe the girl who used to be me
Will be far away, like a lad, at sea!"
---Abigail Cresson, The Wistful One
The sequel, Hell for Pastime II: Dead in the Water
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