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
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
“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
“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
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.”
“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
“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.”
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
“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
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
“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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
“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
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.
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
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
“Has that ever happ…”
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.
Outside the Nuclear
Harm shined a flashlight through the thick, reinforced glass window of
the padlocked reactor compartment, positioning his face as close as
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
“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
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
“Get in here, Sir!” Skibinski ordered, turning his attention back to
“Skibinski, what are you doing?!” Harm gasped as the Soundex employee
dragged him off the knee-knocker and closed the hatch, dogging it from
“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
“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.
“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.
“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
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.”
“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
“How are you doing, Sir?” Rogala asked, seeing Harm’s faceplate fog with
“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
“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
“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?”
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
“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
“I didn’t seek you out at all. One of the men standing watch must have
“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.”
“May I see your dosimeter?”
“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
“These are built to be pretty tough.”
“He barreled into me hard. There’s a gamma-strip on my name badge. Will
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
“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
“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
“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
“We’re you going to tell me?” she asked quietly, the hurt in her voice
“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
“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
“For starters, we’re not at each others’ throats,” Harm managed a small
“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
“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.”
“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
“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
“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
“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.
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“That’s why you went under the ice so quick before the HF sonar was
thoroughly configured with the updated software.”
“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
“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
“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
“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
She knew he was right. If his appendix ruptured, the infection would
spread throughout his abdomen and he would be facing more serious
“I’m sorry, Harm. I should be allaying your concerns not the other way
“I guess we now know why the table in the Officers Wardroom is really
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.”
Two Hours Later
“It seems like forever since I was trying to force down a slice of toast
“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
“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
“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.”
“Make sure you give me a bikini cut.”
“We’ll see, Sir,” Plunkett smiled.
“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
“Two to three hours, during which a steady even keel would be
“Understood. Good luck,” Pochatko nodded, leaving the group to their
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
“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
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.
“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
“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
“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
“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
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
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.