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Chapter 12 – What The Future Holds – by Herbert Watters

 

God he missed Ellie – her voice, her laugh, the hundred ways that she made his life better. Their heritages were so different, yet that’s what drew them together. Her proud Native American heritage paralleled his own sense of dedication and service to his country. It was ironic that he now had his own bent spear to deal with.

It was Ellie who taught him keeping a journal could be therapeutic. During the long months of separation, some things were just too personal to share with his shipmates. So he wrote, usually about her, but sometimes about the stress of the job. It helped take the edge off – at least a little.

Picking up the hard bound book with its personalized embossed cover, he let his finger idly trace his name, ‘Samuel Franklin’. Realizing he only had ten minutes before he had to deal with the aftermath of the incident, he put pen in hand and his thoughts to paper.

-- Journal Entry -- The damn fools had to be out of their heads. Didn’t they know how dangerous it was? ‘Just chalk it up to the spirited rivalry between the nukes and the non-nuclear enlisted men,’ McAfee had said. ‘No damage was done, except for my wrist watch,’ Norton assured him.

Damnit! Why did it have to be in the vault? Forty-eight hours before an Engineering Inspection by the DNR and they expected him to just sweep it under the rug? This went way beyond the usual verbal jousting and repartee. This could have career implications for all of them – all because ‘In Sync’ couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
-- End Journal Entry --

Underscoring the last sentence, he set the journal aside and headed off to Maneuvering.

“Dugan, there’s a touch up job that needs done. Make sure it’s your best work. I don’t want to see a streak or telltale sign that fresh paint was applied. Got it?” Lieutenant J.G. Samuel Franklin advised Machinist Mate Patrick Dugan.

“If it’s one thing I know boss, it’s how to please a nuclear nitpicker.”

“You ought to since it takes one to know one.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

”Finally, something to work with,” Harm murmured, pensively skimming the remaining chapters. Thirty minutes later, realizing he was the only one left in the Wardroom, he gathered his willpower and pushed himself to his feet.

 

Ten Minutes Later

 

“I’ll need a little time to check your Security Level and obtain clearance,” Master Chief McDonald explained to Harm.

“Fine, but can you place a priority on it. My CO’s not going to be happy if I don’t have this cleared up soon.”

“Understood, Sir.”

“I’ll be waiting in the enlisted men’s mess.”

Harm headed for the room that saw duty as cafeteria, chapel, assembly room, movie theatre, study hall, and lounge.

Hoping to forestall another mass exodus, he lurked around the corner. It was easy to spot the non-qualified crewmen who were off-duty. They were the ones studiously reading technical manuals. It was the first step to earning their Dolphins. Standing before the XO for an oral examination, while demonstrating their newly acquired proficiency in departments other than their specialty, was the second.

“I can’t say I miss those days,” Petty Officer Curtis said coming up behind Harm as Torpedoman’s Mate Maughn tagged along.

“Why is that?” Harm asked, noting the man’s name and Radioman insignia on his coveralls. He also nodded to the torpedoman with whom him he was already acquainted.

“We get six hours of sleep if we’re lucky, followed by standing a six-hour watch. That leaves six hours to squeeze in eating, hygiene, drilling, accomplishing our maintenance assignments and studying. Then the 18-hour cycle starts over again.”

“That doesn’t leave much personal time when you’re trying to qualify.”

“Correct, Commander.”

Harm contemplated what it must be like to operate on an 18-hour day instead of 24 for months at a time. He knew submariners claim they adapt quickly to the circadian cycle once submerged but studies have proven they do lose sleep and become moodier.

“That’s why we try to earn our Dolphins as soon as possible. Once you do, you have time to read for pleasure, play cards, watch movies, and catch up on sleep.”

“How do you like working in Communications?” Harm asked making conversation with one of the few people not shunning him.

“It’s pretty monotonous most of the time, except when translating familygrams for the XO or when new OPORDS come in, like last night.”

“New orders?” Harm asked, tilting his head.

“Sorry, Sir, I shouldn’t have mentioned that,” Petty Officer Curtis stammered, realizing his loose lips when his card-playing partner scowled.

 

Control Room

 

“The Captain is catching a couple hours of sleep. He’ll be monitoring progress from his quarters,” XO Pochatko explained.

Nodding, Mac continued to study the charts on the plotting table. She was surprised how far north they had traveled since boarding at Keflavik. Paralleling the eastern side of Greenland, they were already well above the Arctic Circle.

“We surfaced below the winter extent of the sea ice last night and are approaching the permanent ice pack,” Pochtako continued.

“I thought we were going to ply open water along the edges of the ice flow until the HF sonar was configured,” Mac said.

“Change of plans. Skibinski are you ready?”

“Never more so.”

Entering the darkened, hushed Sonar room forward of the Control Room, Mac watched the three Sonar technicians listening intently with headphones clasped to their ears. Their eyes, fixed on glowing colorful monitors, were interpreting the vital sound waves that enabled the SSN Bradford to deal with the challenges of ‘seeing’ underwater.

“I’ll need to adjust the profiling mode first,” Skibinski informed the group, clearly enjoying being the center of attention. He eased his large frame into a seat at the side console. “It essentially paints a three-dimensional picture of what’s ahead of the ship.”

“Using profile mode is like flying on a clear day, instead of having to use instruments. You can see exactly what you’re getting yourself into,” the XO explained for Mac’s sake.

“Overhead ice is twenty-five feet thick,” one of the Sonarmen advised using the upward looking sonar.

“Continue announcing changes greater than one foot,” XO Pochatko ordered.

“Aye, Sir.”

 

Same Time

 

Harm proceeded aft of the mess hall, passing the forward escape trunk. Descending half a deck, he slowly approached the ‘great divide’. The opening would have been unassuming if not for the bright triangular yellow signs with their red warning messages.

As far as he knew, no member of the media had ever been permitted down the tunnel leading to the propulsion and engineering spaces of a U.S. nuclear-powered sub. Only authorized personnel were permitted beyond this point. Heavily shielded with lead and polyethylene, the area was considered a high-radiation area.

Unconsciously taking a deep breath, he stepped into the long, featureless corridor and headed for the Engine Room.

“Permission to enter Maneuvering,” Harm requested formally standing on one side of the waist high chain strung across the doorway.

“Sir?!” Lieutenant J.G. Rogala turned around startled, as did the three enlisted men standing watch.

“It’s alright, Lieutenant. I have clearance.”

Harm showed him the security notification Master Chief McDonald had attached to his identification tag. The man nodded nervously, removing the chain.

“Permission granted,” Rogala said.

“Thank you Lieutenant.”

Stepping into the room, Harm took in the three slanted control panels. The most noticeable housed two polished chrome wheels, one set inside the other. He recognized them as the throttle controls for the main engine.

“Sorry, if I startled you.”

“I thought you were the Captain sneaking up. He likes to test our alertness by trying to get to the SCRAM switch. It gets our hearts racing every time.”

Harm spotted the glass-enclosed red toggle switch. The extra precaution insured it wasn’t accidentally flipped. Doing so would immediately shutdown the ship’s nuclear reactor by lowering control rods into the reactor core.

To his right was a large schematic showing the piping in the plant. Black grease pencil marks indicated whether various valves were currently open or closed.

“Are you married Lieutenant?” Harm asked. He shook his head realizing too late how blunt the question sounded to his own ears.

“Ah, no Sir. I’m engaged but that’s on hold until I finish my first tour of the Bradford.”

“Your first tour?”

“Yes, Sir. I only came aboard a month ago to serve as Reactor Control Officer.”

“I see. I apologize for the personal questions.”

“It’s okay, Sir. Scuttlebutt says you’re here investigating the former COB’s book. He was gone before I arrived.”

“As part of my investigation I need some time back in the plant.”

“There’s a ten minute limit when we’re critical, Sir. Be sure to suit up,” Rogala warned, applying a beta-gamma filmstrip to Harm’s name badge.

“Thanks, Lieutenant.”

 

SSN Bradford Control Room

 

Unconsciously holding her breath, Mac watched the dot in the middle of the white circle. Its position in the center verified the planesman and helmsman were keeping pace with the frequent course and depth changes ordered.

“Active HF sonar is synchronized. We have a real-time view here.”

Hearing Skibinski’s voice quiver nervously, Mac turned her attention to the monitor rendering an impressive 3-D graphical display of the topography above, below, and ahead of the Bradford.

“Ice thickness overhead is 35…38…40 feet, changing rapidly,” the Sonarman reported.

“Engine Room, ahead dead slow,” XO Pochatko ordered the decrease in speed, as the pace of the sonar’s pinging increased.

“We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore,” someone mumbled.

“Ridge elevation is increasing rapidly,” another voice informed.

Even if the display wasn’t confirming the tight squeeze that lay ahead, Mac would have been able to derive the same from the body language and tension building around her. Her own mouth and lips were unusually dry.

“We’re navigating over an undersea mountain range,” Pochatko informed her.

Ping-ping-ping-ping – the pacing between the stilted mellow tones of the sonar increased as the space between the mountain ridge below and ice overhead narrowed. Lines on the graphical display slowly closed in on the line representing the Bradford, sandwiching it between them.

 

Engine Room Area

 

The nuclear reactor onboard the Bradford was nothing more than a glorified heat source to boil water. The boiled water generated the steam that turned the large turbines. The turbines, attached to a generator, produced electricity and power to turn the propeller shaft.

But a pound of highly enriched uranium, smaller than a baseball, could heat that water for years. As such, despite its inherent danger, it was now used as the main fuel source instead of oil, coal, or natural gas.

Proceeding beyond the manned work benches and small machine shop, Harm shook his head sheepishly after attempting to wipe the sweat from his forehead. His gloved hand hitting the plexiglass faceplate reminded him he was cocooned in a bulky protective suit.

Treading carefully, he traversed the large platform dominating the space. Suspended from rubberized mounts on the inside of the hull, the platform was an oversize shock absorber. While it decreased the amount of noise the huge engines radiated through the hull, it did little to dampen their sounds in the enclosed area. It wasn’t long before the high-pitched whine of the turbines drowned out his own deep breathing ringing loud in his ears.

With his heart thumping and blood running hot behind his eyes, he swallowed hard and firmly grasped the hatch wheel. Turning it to the open position, he pushed the hatch inward and found himself staring at a thick chain and padlock. If there had been any doubt, the extra security precautions effectively confirmed he was at the vault containing the SSN Bradford’s nuclear reactor.

 

Control Room

 

While under the ice on the SSN Watertown, Mac had been blissfully oblivious to the challenges and dangers of navigating a submarine in the alien environment of the Arctic Ocean. To her, it was as foreign a concept as walking on the moon.

The XO’s voice droned in the background with orders to begin threading the needle. Watching the changes on the 3-D display, Mac wondered how many other hearts were pumping as furiously as hers.

“Ocean depth 3600 feet,” someone intoned.

Right now Mac considered the figure superfluous. More relevant to her was the downward spike on the display representing an 80-foot thick ridge of inverted ice overhead. Combined with the 3460-foot mark identifying the top of the undersea mountain, the math in her head uncomfortably validated what she was seeing.

With the Bradford measuring 50 feet from bottom of hull to top of sail, that left a mere ten feet of ‘wiggle room’ with which to ‘thread the needle’.

Human nature being what it was, those not at a watch station gripped the nearest stanchion. Looking upward, they held their breath as the Bradford crept along.

The ever-present hum and incessant pinging of the sonar were counterpoint to the divergent mantras around her.

“Keep it steady, keep it steady,” XO Pochatko directed encouragingly.

“We’re going to collide, we’re going to collide,” Miles Skibinski whispered, sweating profusely as he stared wide-eyed at the display.

“Conditions are holding and will prevail for another 200 yards,” the Sonarman dutifully reported.

“We’re too close, too close, oh God,” Skibinski moaned, burying his head in his hands.

“What happens if the sail should strike the ice overhead?” Mac asked, finding her voice.

“Best case, you can kiss goodbye to the periscope and radio antennae, leaving us blinded or disabled. Worst case, we become trapped,” the XO answered.

“Has that ever happ…”

“Nooooo!”

Mac heard Skibinski howl. He bolted from his seat and out the door. Mac turned anxiously to the display. Two lines on the display touched, setting off the alarm tripwire. The blaring klaxon of the collision alarm filled the confines.

“Mister Cline, go after your colleague!” the XO shouted.

 

Earlier
Outside the Nuclear
Reactor Compartment

 

Harm shined a flashlight through the thick, reinforced glass window of the padlocked reactor compartment, positioning his face as close as possible.

Strategically placed mirrors provided a view of the entire room. The cold-capsule shaped shielded tank might have been the business end of the room. But the boilers and recirculation pumps were the workhorses. His eyes followed the pipes exiting the compartment, leading back toward the turbines.

Marking time on a clock above the reactor, he meticulously moved the flashlight beam over each surface, painstakingly looking for any variation in color or texture.

“There it is.”

Harm sighed deeply, now having a concrete lead to follow in his investigation.

He never would have spotted the two-inch by ten-inch swath of paint on the far wall had he not been looking for it. The edges had been carefully feathered in an attempt to make them less conspicuous with the surrounding area.

“What the…?!”

Harm stumbled backward as the ship began screaming in fright. The satisfaction of his discovery was immediately forgotten. The gut-wrenching sound of the collision alarm, with its ambulance-like siren from an old foreign movie, reverberated off the walls.

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!

“Come on, let it be a drill. Let it be a drill,” he prayed as perspiration stung his eyes.

 

Control Room

 

Mac watched helplessly as the line depicting the Bradford contacted the line representing the ice pack overhead. Visualizing the wrenching damage being inflicted to the Bradford’s sail, the alarm cut deep into her soul.

It wasn’t long before the XO’s voice short circuited the replaying of all her regrets in life.

“Cut the alarm.”

“Alarm terminated, aye,” the response sliced through the deafening silence that ensued.

“This is a drill. I repeat -- this is a drill. Cease casualty maneuvers,” the XO’s voice rang throughout the ship as Captain Morgan arrived on the scene with Chief of the Boat McDonald on his heels.

“COB called Doc to attend to Mister Cline. He found him unconscious with a serious head injury. Where’s Skibinski?” Morgan asked.

“He got spooked,” the XO grimaced distastefully.

“Find him,” Morgan ordered McDonald.

If not for Skibinski’s assault on Cline, Mac might have felt a twinge of sympathy for the young man. It was only her military training that had kept her own feet firmly planted earlier.

“Status?” Morgan demanded.

“The recorder logged a zero clearance,” XO Pochatko answered.

“Slush?”

“Yes Sir.”

“What about slush?” Mac asked, her heart still hammering in her chest.

“The top part of the sail must have glided through freezing slush that is hanging around the bottom of the solid ice. It erroneously displayed as a collision and set off the alarm tripwire,” Pochatko explained.

“We are exiting the tunnel,” the Sonarman’s voice interrupted.

Mac scanned the monitor to confirm the message. The narrow gap they just squeezed through had opened up, now looking much less threatening.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Unsure whether to laugh or cry hearing the XO’s drill announcement, Harm closed his eyes and sagged against the wall. The emotional roller coaster of the tense seconds was as draining as the physical problems he’d been fighting.

With the scare still fresh in his mind and his allotted time used up, he was anxious to leave the daunting area. Pushing himself wearily off the wall, he proceeded hastily over the elevated threshold. Turning to secure the hatch, he paused to catch a final glimpse of the locked compartment.
Awareness came too late that he was no longer alone. Pain erupted across his midsection as he see-sawed across the metal knee-knocker.

“Stop it! For the love of God, stop it!” Skibinski screamed, his knees burying in the small of Harm’s back as he tried to scramble through the now congested opening.

Unable to squeeze out from underneath the two hundred plus pounds pinning him in place, Harm concentrated on steering clear of the two-foot long pipe wrench Skibinski wielded. A glancing blow to his ribs winded him just before another unseen force in the form of Lieutenant Rogala suddenly propelled Skibinski forward. Both new arrivals tumbled over Harm, coming to rest against the vault door.

“Look out!” Harm wheezed too late as the agile civilian got to his feet swinging the wrench down on Rogala’s back, stunning the engineering officer.

“Get in here, Sir!” Skibinski ordered, turning his attention back to Harm.

“Skibinski, what are you doing?!” Harm gasped as the Soundex employee dragged him off the knee-knocker and closed the hatch, dogging it from their side.

“Stopping this sub, Sir!”

“Why?” Harm groaned getting slowly to his knees, his arms wrapped tight around his waist.

“I have to stop it before we all die!”

“We’re not going to die,” Harm reasoned seeing the panic and anxiety etched in the man’s face.

“You didn’t…you didn’t see how close…”

“I didn’t see how close what was?” Harm tried keeping the man talking as he got to his feet.

“The ice, it was all around. There’s NO way OUT!”

Skibinski roared irrationally, swinging the hefty wrench towards the vault door.

“Calm down! This isn’t the answer.” Harm went for the panicked man’s arms. Simultaneously Lieutenant Rogala had recovered enough to kick out Skibinski’s legs, throwing him off balance.

Instead of bouncing harmlessly off the metal door, the wrench connected solidly with an overhead pipe.

 

Control Room

 

“This can’t be good,” Mac groaned inwardly as the lights suddenly blinked out and the whine of the air processing unit ground to a halt.

It only took moments for her eyes to adjust to the dim light provided by a solitary emergency lantern. She watched the men frozen in place, all waiting for some indication of the seriousness of the situation.

“Engine Room, what’s the problem?” Captain Morgan’s voice rang clear over the emergency battery powered intercom.

“Captain we just had an emergency reactor SCRAM.”

The chilly response was accompanied by a wailing siren in the background, yet another sound Mac didn’t think she’d ever forget.

“Cause?”

“Schematic is showing a valve leaking in compartment A-2. It must have short-circuited the electrical system,” the reactor control assistant reported, his trained voice concealing yet another crisis.

“Dammit a SCRAM,” Morgan hissed.

Mac searched her brain for the acronym. Eventually recalling it meant a shutdown of the reactor and complete loss of primary power to the sub; or colloquially speaking ‘Stop Chain Reaction, Avoid Meltdown.’ The latter was a good thing, right?

“We need to stop drawing steam and start the diesel engine,” a junior officer spouted the routine response. It was one of the solutions usually followed when the Captain intentionally flipped the SCRAM switch to drill for this very emergency.

“No! We can’t snorkel the diesel while under the pack ice. We need to continue drawing steam or we’ll lose forward propulsion,” Captain Morgan replied hastily.

Mac suddenly understood the physics. As forward momentum is lost, depth control is lost. Without the latter, the Bradford could only blow to the surface and impact with the immovable ice pack or sink to the bottom – a bottom that lay well beyond crush depth.

“Get that leaked stopped and prepare for Fast Scram Recovery ASAP,” Morgan ordered the Engine Room.

“Aye, Sir. Lieutenant Rogala is on it.”

 

Compartment A-2
Engineering Section

 

“Will they start the back-up diesel engine?” Skibinski whimpered while Lieutenant Rogala twisted his arm painfully behind his back and pinned him to the floor.

“They can’t you fool! We can’t snorkel through the ice,” Rogala spat as he shined the flashlight on the spot where super heated water was shooting into the room. It and the emergency lighting gave Harm barely enough illumination for the task at hand.

A quick glance through the thick glass confirmed what both officers already knew. The emergency SCRAM had dropped the control rods into the reactor, stopping the nuclear reaction, and thus the production of heat. If it wasn’t restarted soon, the Bradford would quickly use up all steam reserves and would be unable to maintain current depth.

Secondly, an emergency restart of the reactor was a dangerous proposition. It had to be done before too much internal heat was lost in the core. But the men back in Maneuvering couldn’t commence with the restart until this leak was stopped and the electrical system brought back on-line.

“How are you doing, Sir?” Rogala asked, seeing Harm’s faceplate fog with exertion.

“I’m almost there,” he replied through clenched teeth, his arms and ribs protesting as he wrestled with the oversize plumbing tool. If nothing else, his wearing the protective suit proved fortuitous as the reactor-heated water pelted him in the face and chest as he made progress tightening the loosened valve.

 

Three Hours Later
Pharmacy Closet

 

“Why so glum, Ma’am? The leak was stopped and the reactor restart went exactly by the book,” Chief Corpsman ‘Doc’ Plunkett asked Mac when she entered the Bradford’s ‘med center’.

“I’m afraid the past two days have pegged my excitement meter, Doc. Don’t tell Commander Rabb, but I’m actually looking forward to some drudge work back at JAG,” Mac smiled looking dubiously around the tiny room.

“Is something wrong, Ma’am?”

“No offense, but this isn’t as nice as the Watertown.”

“I can imagine. We pre-date the Watertown. They’ve since figured out how to give the MedCenter a little more room. But don’t let looks fool you. We get along just fine if the need arises.”

“I’ll take your word on that.”

“How can I help you, Ma’am?”

“I need an update on how the Soundex reps are doing.”

“I’m treating Mister Skibinski as a ‘psych case’. He’s been sedated and is asleep in enlisted quarters, under guard. Mister Cline is finally awake and appears to be alert. But I want to keep a close watch on him.”

“Where is he?”

“The XO made one of the racks in junior officers berthing available. It’s convenient since that’s where I just finished treating the contusion on Lieutenant Rogala’s back. He’s resting comfortably too.”

“You’ve been busy.”

“And I’m not done yet. I’m needed in the Torpedo Room.”

“The Torpedo Room, do you know why?”

“No, Ma’am.”

 

Same Time
Torpedo Room
Auxiliary Berthing

 

With a viable lead to investigate, Harm knew he couldn’t lie on his rack indefinitely. But he also knew it was only a matter of time before someone came to debrief him regarding the incident with Skibinski outside the vault. Those kinds of incidents had to be well documented and scrutinized else there would be hell to pay when the Director of Naval Reactors got wind of it. Until then, however, he was content to remain curled up on his side, willing his aching torso to stop hurting and his nausea, which had returned with a vengeance, to abate.

“Commander are you okay?” XO Pochatko frowned seeing Harm push himself up to vomit into a plastic bag.

“I’ve been fighting something ever since we left Washington,” he groaned, tying the bag off while slowly sitting up to face the XO.

“Are you up for a few questions?”

“I can manage. I assume you’re here because of what occurred with Mister Skibinski in the nuclear plant area?”

“That and I need to know what you were doing there in the first place.”

“I was following a lead regarding Master Chief Watters’ book,” Harm grimaced, his stomach threatening to revolt again.

“What’s the nature of the lead?”

“Until I know more, I’d rather not…”

“Harm!” Mac interrupted the discussion seeing him in obvious physical distress.

“I don’t think Commander Rabb is up to this right now, Sir,” Corpsman Plunkett tactfully advised the XO.

“It appears not. We’ll talk when you’re feeling better,” the XO replied, leaving the Corpsman to assist his newest patient.

“You should have sought me out sooner, Commander,” Plunkett lightly chastised.

“I didn’t seek you out at all. One of the men standing watch must have called.”

“The Commander has acquired a distrust of Corpsmen, particularly those serving on submarines,” Mac explained, her eyes clearly showing displeasure as they bore into Harm.

“And how was your day?” Harm asked, feigning ignorance.

“It might start getting better if you let Doc take a look at you.”

“Seriously Commander, Lieutenant Rogala reported you were in the reactor plant longer than the ten minutes allotted by regulations.”

“We both know the ten minute limit is highly conservative. Besides I was wearing protective clothing and showered afterwards,” Harm said, immediately understanding the Corpsman’s train of thought.

“You’re obviously nauseous and have vomited.”

“Yes, but...”

“May I see your dosimeter?”

“Here.”

“The crystal is cracked. I can’t get a reading.” Plunkett frowned studying the device Harm had disengaged from his belt.

“It must have been damaged when I was sandwiched between the knee knocker and Skibinski.”

“Sandwiched between the knee…” Mac started to question before Plunkett interrupted.

“These are built to be pretty tough.”

“He barreled into me hard. There’s a gamma-strip on my name badge. Will that do?”

Harm winced sucking in a breath as he lifted an arm to remove his chained identification tag.

“It’ll have to, but I’ll need to have it developed. Meanwhile, I need to take a look at your chest.”

With Mac glaring at him, Harm obediently unzipped his coveralls. It wasn’t long before he reluctantly acknowledged he needed help shrugging out of the sleeves.

“Ugh,” Harm swayed off balance once Mac had freed his arms.

“Maybe you better lie down,” Doc instructed, letting Mac support Harm’s shoulders and ease him onto his back.

His head registered the soft pillow the same time their eyes met. The non-verbal exchange spoke volumes as she set his duffel aside.

“I think you’ll fine them bruised,” Harm warned weakly as the Corpsman carefully pushed up his t-shirt.

“I guess!” Plunkett whistled through his teeth seeing the abraded skin and dark purple splotches that had already formed.

“You were going to ignore this?!” Mac seethed angrily, needing to vent her fear.

“I didn’t think it was bad enough to require medical attention.”

Any further discussion was forestalled while Plunkett meticulously moved his stethoscope across Harm’s torso. Quietness continued to reign as he checked Harm’s pulse and respiration and conducted a visual inspection of the vomit bag. The latter generating a shared squeamish look between the two JAG officers. Only the ever-present hum of the Bradford’s operating systems penetrated the rising tension.

“All right Commander, here’s what we’re going to do. I don’t think you have any internal injuries. But I’m going to take some blood and you’re going to give me a urine sample. Then I’m going to go develop this film strip.”

“Can I at least go to the head?”

“I don’t think that’s wise. Let’s start with the urine sample,” Plunkett answered, handing over a specimen jar.

“Only if the Colonel turns her back,” Harm said, trying to lighten everyone’s darkening mood.

 

An hour later

 

Mac repeatedly paced the 21-foot length of one of the Mark 48 torpedoes dominating the cramped space. Harm turned gingerly onto his side and watched.

“What’s taking so long? Maybe I should go check.”

“Mac, relax. He’s only one guy. Besides, it’s probably just a bug I brought with me. If there was a radiation leak, others would be experiencing symptoms too.”

“Others didn’t have reactor-heated water pouring over them.”

“The water that’s turned into steam doesn’t mix with the radioactive water coolant. Now sit, you’re making me dizzy.”

Harm snagged her hand on her next pass and pulled her onto the stool the Corpsman had used.

“Is that supposed to make me feel better? You haven’t seen the medical facilities on board,” she replied quietly, not fighting the tug of her arm. Truth be told, she welcomed the opportunity to make physical contact with him.

“Déjà vu,” he whispered, as her thumb gently rubbed the webbing between his thumb and index finger, just as he had done two months ago after her car accident in December -- a December proving to be a pivotal point in their relationship.

“We’re you going to tell me?” she asked quietly, the hurt in her voice obvious.

“Tell you what?” his eyes narrowed nervously.

“About your altercation with Skibinski, the role you played in stopping the leak, your visit to the reactor plant, the new lead in your investigation…”

“Power down. Did you forget our paths only crossed an hour ago?” Harm squirmed uncomfortably, stopping her litany.

“You’re right. I’m sorry. You’re sick and I’m not helping matters.”

“Forgiven,” he replied, relishing the feel of his hand in hers.

“What is it about this visit to the Bradford that’s so different than the Watertown?”

“For starters, we’re not at each others’ throats,” Harm managed a small grin.

“Yeah, it does make it easier to see the civility that permeates this place. I could get use to that.”

“It’s necessary when you have so many living in close quarters,” Harm mumbled, closing his eyes.

“How are you holding up?”

“Not so good.”

“You’re running a fever,” she frowned, feeling his forehead.

“Yeah, it feels like it.”

“What can I do to help?”

“You’re doing it…Mac, there is something I wanted to talk to you about.” Harm sighed, opening his eyes, deciding this was as good a time as any.

“About your investigation?”

“No, about me, us…”

“Us?” She croaked the word that had gotten her into so much trouble all those months ago.

“About something I’ve been struggling with lately.”

“Sure, Harm. What is it?”

“God, this is so hard. I don’t know how to tell you.”

“Just say it,” she urged quietly, trying to mask the fear stabbing her gut.

“I don’t want to stay at JAG.”

“Because of me?”

“No, yes. It’s hard to explain…” Harm’s hand motion indicated his inability to express the reason coherently.

“You haven’t found it the same since you came back from the CIA?” Mac speculated helping him articulate what it was he was feeling.

“That’s part of it. You have to admit it’s not the same.”

“There’s no doubt the dynamics have changed. What with Chegwidden leaving and Sturgis filling in, followed by Cresswell…”

“It’s not that I need my ego stroked or anything…”

“But it seems like you’re no longer wanted, taken for granted.”

“Yes.”

“But what will you do?”

“There are so many important things I want to be doing.”

“But somewhere else.”

“Yeah….Ugh!....Damn,” Harm hissed, pulling his knees up towards his chest as he rocked sideways.

“Harm! What’s wrong?!” Mac grabbed his shoulders, her own sudden turmoil forgotten.

”Hurts.”

“I’m going for the Corpsman.”

“I’m right here, Ma’am,” Plunkett scooted by her, pulling the blanket away in one swift motion.

“What did you find?” she demanded.

“I’ve ruled out radiation sickness. The film strip was negative and the urine is normal.”

“He’s experiencing severe pain and running a fever.”

“The latter would be consistent with the elevated white blood cell count I found. How long haven’t you felt well, Commander?”

“Since we left DC. I thought it was heartburn at first.” Harm moaned, closing his eyes tight when the Corpsman insisted on straightening his legs.

“He’s not had his usual energy or an appetite and he’s looked flushed.”

“I told you I wasn’t blushing,” Harm mumbled.

Mac ignored the comment, hovering as the Corpsman pulled up Harm’s t-shirt again. Even her untrained eye could now see the washboard rigidity of his abdominal muscles.

“He was nauseous last night too but thought it was motion sickness.”

“Try to relax, Commander.”

“Not easy.” Harm moaned again when Plunkett placed his hand firmly above his knee.

“Try to flex your right knee…okay…good…now turn to the side and extend your right leg from the hip… Is there any increase of pain?”

“No, it’s the same.”

“Okay, with your knee bent, I’m going to flex your thigh at the hip. Let me know if the pain increases… Any change?”

“No,” Harm answered, as his leg was straightened again.

Mac bit her lip watching the Corpsman put Harm through more contortions. None of the gyrations had significantly increased his discomfort. She began doubting the limited resources available to the Corpsman were going to be sufficient to render a diagnosis.

Using a towel to wipe away the sweat running into Harm’s eyes, she winced as Plunkett pressed his fingers below the battered rib cage, hooking one in place.

“Okay, Commander…I need you to take a deep breath…let it out …again ... another… okay… good.”

Harm coughed hard after exhaling the second time, protectively wrapping his arms around his waist to ward off the pain.

Mac’s eyes sprung wide open when Plunkett used the opportunity to lower Harm’s boxers. Immediately meeting Harm’s eyes, she kept her gaze planted firmly on his face when he reddened in embarrassment.

“I’m almost done, Commander. Let me know if any of this is sensitive,” Plunkett instructed moving Harm’s cradled arms aside, intent on his task rather than his bedside manner.

Mac offered a sympathetic look while the Corpsman gently picked up folds of skin between his finger and thumb, working his way systematically down Harm’s exposed abdomen.

“Oww!

“Sensitive?” Plunkett stopped seeing Harm’s hips rise off the rack as his back arched.

“More than sensitive,” Harm groaned, sucking in a sharp breath while Plunkett pressed two fingers firmly on the area and released the pressure.

Mac bit her lip seeing Harm’s face visibly pale from the rebound pain.

“Okay, Commander. I’m going to start you on antibiotics and give you something for the pain.”

 

8 hours later
Captain’s Stateroom

 

“His temperature is up another degree. The antibiotics aren’t doing the job,” Chief Plunkett reported.

“If he wasn’t feeling well, why did Rabb accept this assignment?” Captain Morgan asked in frustration.

“In all fairness to the Commander, Sir, the pain is not always located in the classic position until later. He thought it was something he ate.”

“The Arctic ice pack has been averaging 40 feet. That well exceeds the maximum limit we’re capable of breaking through. Ice conditions aren’t expected to change anytime soon.”

“There was a polynya plotted 12 hours ago.” Mac stood, remembering the spot of open water recorded between the thicker ice flows. “We can backtrack, surface, and call for a helo to airlift him to the nearest medical facility.”

“Twelve hours in the wrong direction, Colonel.”

“His life could be at stake!”

“We’re on a mission Colonel Mackenzie. I’m afraid you and the Commander are with us for the duration or until the ice thins. SUBATLAN was aware of your presence when they issued the new OPORDS. They’ve no doubt communicated this to your CO.”

“What new mission?” Mac asked incredulously, not believing this could be happening to them again.

“Twelve hours after your arrival, we received orders to proceed with all due haste to Kane Basin. It’s East of the northern tip of Ellesmere Island.”

“Why?”

“Intel suspects a North Korean sub in the area.”

“Why would they be there?”

“Think about it Colonel. They’ve already admitted possessing nuclear weapons. If they were to launch a missile from that position, it would cut our response time in half or more increasing the odds of it reaching U.S. soil. If they go after Canada, there would be even less time.”

“They really think they can blackmail the U.S. into sitting down with them in one-on-one talks?”

“Who knows what the North Koreans are thinking these days.”

“How will you find them? They could hide forever in the ice.”

“Seismographs have registered unusual activity in a specific location. Plus we have their tonal signature. If they’re on the move, we’ll find them.”

“That’s why you went under the ice so quick before the HF sonar was thoroughly configured with the updated software.”

“Correct.”

“What are we going to do about Commander Rabb?” Mac returned to the salient point of the discussion.

“I’m afraid he’s going to have to take his chances with Chief Plunkett and undergo an emergency appendectomy.”

 

6 Hours Later
Torpedo Room

 

“It’s 103.4 -- you’ve really done it this time, Harm.” Mac glared at the thermometer in her hand.

“Where’s Doc?” he asked, wiping what little sleep he’d managed from his eyes.

“Studying a book no doubt,” she replied tersely, knowing her sour disposition was only partly due to the diagnosis and the uncertainty of what lay ahead mere hours from now. The fear their interrupted discussion had left her with continued to gnaw at her too. But she promised herself she would not push him further on the latter until he was ready to resume it.

“Mac, the Navy’s ‘Virtual Hospital’ has been on CD’s for years now,” he smirked weakly.

“How can you joke at a time like this? Chief Plunkett deals in pinched fingers and minor burns, not major surgery!”

“He’s an Independent Duty Corpsman with more experience than most Physician Assistants. He’s assisted in surgery several times, including two appendectomies. I could do a lot worse,” Harm rationalized, studying the IV with antibiotics flowing into him.

“You’re still his guinea pig.”

“I don’t really have a choice, do I?” he asked quietly, the ominous creaking of the ice coming through the hull alerting them to yet another tight fit.

She knew he was right. If his appendix ruptured, the infection would spread throughout his abdomen and he would be facing more serious problems.

“I’m sorry, Harm. I should be allaying your concerns not the other way around.”

“I guess we now know why the table in the Officers Wardroom is really padded.”

Mac couldn’t help but grin. But her eyes soon turned watery.

“I want to be there, Harm.”

“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea, Mac.”

“Don’t argue. I’m going to be there.”

“Chief Plunkett has to agree.”

“He will.”

 

Two Hours Later
Officers Wardroom

 

“It seems like forever since I was trying to force down a slice of toast here.”

“It was 24 hours ago.” Mac stood over Harm watching him feign interest in the wooden decor and decorative brass fittings from his supine position on the table.

“General Cresswell is no doubt livid. We are now officially overdue.”

“You tried to warn him,” she reminded him, lightly stroking his arm.

“I really hate being right this time.”

“Chief Plunkett assures me you’re going to come through this fine. Besides, we never finished talking,” Mac reassured him as much for her sake as his.

“I’m still not sure you’re being here is a good idea, Ma’am. I’ll have my hands full if you faint or anything,” Plunkett frowned as he and Pharmacist Mate Tompkins made a final inspection of their preparations.

“Calmly, Marine,” Harm’s eyes crinkled knowing the comment raised her dander.

“I’m a Marine, Chief! Fainting is NOT permitted in the Corps. Besides, my repertoire includes standing alongside a patient with his chest cut open for a heart transplant.”

“Really?” The Corpsman asked surprised as he checked the IV in Harm’s hand.

“We get around,” Mac replied vaguely, the XO’s arrival sparing her the need to go into any details reminding her of another close call that put Harm in the hospital.

“What are you giving him?” Pochatko asked, placing his hands on the table after securing a surgical mask over his face.

“Methahexicol sodium. You’ll be under in a few seconds and awake before you know it, Commander.”

“Doc.”

“Yes Commander?”

“Make sure you give me a bikini cut.”

“We’ll see, Sir,” Plunkett smiled.

“Mac.”

“Yeah, Harm?”

“Thanks for being here. I left you something…”

“It’s okay, Harm. I’ll be here when you wake up,” Mac whispered feeling him tense as he tried to fight the anesthesia.

“Doc, Captain Morgan wants to know how long you expect this to take,” Pochatko asked, checking his watch as Harm lost the battle to keep his eyes open.

“Two to three hours, during which a steady even keel would be appreciated, Sir.”

“Understood. Good luck,” Pochatko nodded, leaving the group to their work.

Mac had to admit she needed to rethink her initial assessment of the SSN Bradford’s medical capabilities. The portable surgical equipment was clearly state-of-the-art. Still she swallowed hard as the tray of sterilized stainless steel instruments was uncovered. The extra lighting set up glinted off numerous hemostats, scalpels, and retractors.

She also begrudgingly admitted watching surgery performed on a loved one was tougher than expected. The spare battery pack sitting nearby didn’t help. It was an ominous reminder of what could happen if power was suddenly lost.

“Anesthesia started at 1046,” Tompkins intoned for the record.

“Tompkins I want pulse and respiratory readings every sixty seconds. Lieutenant Pearch will monitor the IV for a constant drip rate and will check blood pressure. Colonel perhaps you could keep track of the number of sponges I use. It’ll help insure I account for all of them when we’re done,” Plunkett suggested, pulling on a fresh pair of rubber gloves.

“Sure,” Mac croaked, fidgeting as Plunkett generously swabbed Harm’s abdomen with orange antiseptic. After draping his chest and groin with white sheets, the only area left exposed was a rectangular section from his belly button to his right hip.

“Respiration steady,” Tompkins advised.

“Ready?” Plunkett asked taking a calming breath as he looked to his assistants.

Her mouth devoid of spit, Mac could only nod.

She tried to remove herself emotionally from the setting; but failed when the Corpsman made a three-inch long incision penetrating through the skin and layers of Harm’s abdominal wall. A tear slipped down her cheek as she studied his face for any indication he was somehow feeling any of this. Thankfully, he looked like he was sacked out on the couch on a Sunday afternoon, no signs of distress apparent.

Dragging her view back to Plunkett, she watched reluctantly as he dealt with the bleeders and blood. The result wasn’t nearly as bad when he resumed cutting through the oblique muscle. There were no blood vessels to deal with there.

“His intestine is a nice healthy pink,” she remarked when Plunkett finally exposed it through the wound.

“Does the Commander know you borrowed a copy of my CD?” Plunkett asked without looking up.

“No, I didn’t want to give him another reason to tease me.”

“Or worry him?”

“That too,” Mac answered seriously as the Corpsman’s fingers continued penetrating the wound.

“Is everything all right, Chief?” Mac asked worriedly minutes later when beads of perspiration broke out on his forehead.

“I’m having a little trouble finding it,” he admitted, retracting more of the intestine.

“Respiration and pulse are rising,” Tompkins advised.

“Blood pressure is stable,” Pearch reported.

“It’s supposed to be under the cecum and just pop up so I can see it.”

“Come on Harm, can’t you do anything normally?” Mac prayed as the invasive search continued.

“Here it is. I had to turn the cecum over to find it,” he sighed, his brow immediately furrowing.

“What’s wrong?”

“Two-thirds of it is gangrenous. It would have ruptured in another day, two at the most. He’s lucky.”

“Pulse and respiration are back to normal,” Tompkins updated.

Finding the four-inch long worm-like appendage was only the first hurdle. Mac lost track of time as Plunkett clamped off the end of the appendix and used a clean scalpel to sever the thin membrane stretching between the appendix and intestine. With needle and thread he meticulously tied off the end of the blackened organ and without ceremony cut it off.

Seeing it deposited in an empty pickle jar, Mac let herself relax for the first time since the surgery began. She used the opportunity to wipe the perspiration from Plunkett’s brow offering him a grateful smile, hoping her eyes would communicate what her surgical mask hid.

“He’s pretty special to you, I take it,” Plunkett stated conversationally as he continued.

“Yes, he is. I apologize for doubting your abil….”

Captain Morgan’s voice interrupted the exchange. Mac paused, looking up at the 1-MC as his voice registered loud and clear.

“The crew of the Bradford would like to congratulate our visiting JAG officers and Soundex representatives as we pass under the North Pole.”

“What the heck? He shouldn’t be able to do that!” Plunkett said as Harm’s legs twitched noticeably.

“Respiration and pulse are skyrocketing!”

“So is his blood pressure.”

“Check the IV!” Plunkett ordered.

“IV is intact and functioning. No air bubbles.”

“Something is stimulating him.” Plunkett stared wide-eyed as Harm’s legs seemingly sought an escape route off the table.

“It’s all right, Harm! You’re on the Bradford, not the Watertown. Do you hear me? You’re safe. I won’t let anything happen to you. You’ve got to lie still. You’re safe.”

Mac grasped Harm’s face firmly between her hands, lines of distress now present. Just as quickly as the episode started, it ended.

“Readings are returning to normal,” Tompkins confirmed.

“He shouldn’t have been able to do that,” Plunkett repeated dazed.

“I think it has to do with his altercation with Chief Hodge on the Watertown. He was vulnerable and unable to defend himself. He could have been reliving it hearing Captain Morgan’s message.” Checking his once again still form, she was grateful he at least looked relaxed. “I think I got through to him.”

With the reassurance, Plunkett resumed his work. He still had to deal with the appendix stump before removing all the clamps and tucking things back into the wound. Another suture repaired the cecum.

“That’s the last of the sponges too,” Mac confirmed as Plunkett pulled a roll of gauze out of the cavity and thoroughly irrigated the area.

Mac focused on the circle she was repeatedly tracing in Harm’s palm as the Corpsman meticulously stitched close all the layers of the incision -- first the thin membrane, then muscles, and finally the outer skin. Like so many layers of their lives.

“These can come out in seven days,” Plunkett advised.

Just over two hours since the incision was made, Mac closed her eyes offering up a silent prayer as a white sterile bandage was applied, completing the job.

“When will he wake up?” Colonel Sarah MacKenzie, decorated Marine, asked unable to stop the tears now that the ordeal was over.

“It’ll probably be a few hours.”

 

Three Hours later

 

“His temperature is 103.1. That’s not unusual. Pulse and respiration have increased too,” Plunkett advised, checking frequently on his recovering patient.

“He’s been squirming. Is he in pain?” Mac frowned, setting aside Watters’ manuscript as the Corpsman readied the oxygen mask.

“I think he’s just coming around,” he answered, seeing Harm’s eyes flicker.

“Hey, Harm. You’re okay,” Mac soothed once his eyes fluttered open.

“Mac,” he managed, clearly groggy as he took in his surroundings.

“How are you?”

“Tired…sore,” he replied weakly, struggling to focus and breathe.

“Your body’s been through a lot. It’ll get better. Doc’s going to give you some oxygen to help.”

“You found it,” he nodded to the rolled up note she held tight in her hand.

“Yeah.”

“Excuse me, Ma’am. I need to get this in place,” Plunkett interrupted, securing the mask over Harm’s nose and mouth.

“Sleep well, Harm,” Mac whispered seeing he had calmed and appeared to be down for the count. She turned her attention back to his note for the umpteenth time.

Hey Mac,

I don’t know where you’ve gone off to. You’re probably making sure Doc is reading the right chapter. <gr> Anyway, try not to worry. If it helps, feel free to read the attached to help pass the time. You might enjoy it.

ILY,
Harm

P.S. If Chief Watters were still around, I’d hire him out. He’s pretty good at expressing sentiments of the heart.

”You’re getting pretty good at it on your own,” she whispered, surreptitiously planting a kiss on his forehead when Doc wasn’t looking. When she resumed her seat, it was with a sliver of hope that the future might not be as dark as she had feared.

 

 

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