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12 Hours later

 

In hindsight, the steep steps to the lower level had probably been too ambitious. But there was no turning back now.

“Stubborn Squid. Doc’s not going to be happy.”

Harm paused at the knee-knocker leading into the Torpedo Room, clearly needing to regroup before proceeding further.

“Come on, Mac. I’ve disrupted the ship’s routine enough. They’ll appreciate getting their Wardroom back. Besides, the table was getting uncomfortable.

“Excuse me for worrying.”

“You shouldn’t.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I just meant I’m fine. What’s gotten into you?”

Harm limped to the opening, pausing to tilt his head sideways, his outstretched arm supporting him as he waited for an answer.

“Nothing. Do you need help?”

“Yeah, maybe. It’s pretty tender.”

Picking up his leg, he bent at the waist to clear the knee-knocker and cramped hatch opening. His cautious movements and flannel pajama bottoms making it clear he was still recuperating.

“Don’t even think about moving from your rack now that we’ve got you here,” Mac warned, taking some of his weight as he leaned on her.

“You’re cranky. Have you slept at all?”

“Doc ordered me to catch six hours. And I complied. I come by my crankiness naturally,” she fibbed, easing him down on the bunk.

“Where the heck are we anyway?”

“The torpedo room.”

“Funny. Seriously, any ideas?”

“We reached the North Pole hours ago and are heading towards Kane Basin…What is it?” she asked, seeing his expression change.

“I have this fleeting memory that I’ve heard that before -- the North Pole part.”

“Captain Morgan announced it while you were under. Right after he did things got a little scary in the middle of your surgery. I think it brought back bad memories for you. Do you remember?”

“Vaguely. You were trying to get through to me, calm me down.”

Mac ignored his up turned face that sought confirmation. She didn’t want to rehash the tense minutes. Instead, she reached into her pack.

“Here I got you a souvenir.”

“Eww, Mac. It’s gross!”

“It is not. It’s part of you.”

Harm sat speechless as Mac set aside the blackened organ preserved in the jar of alcohol.

“Okay, I guess it’s not a very romantic thought.”

“Speaking of which, did you finish the book?”

“Yeah. Now that you’re not a hundred percent and there’s nothing I can do unless the Soundex guys are needed, are you agreeable to accepting some help?”

“I think I can see my way to doing that.”

“Did you find the touch-up paint job in the vault? That’s the key don’t you think?”

“It’s the only thing of substance in the book. You know what I mean,” he quickly added realizing his gaffe when she glared in mock annoyance.

“You just can’t see your way to acknowledging the more entertaining aspects of the novel, can you?”

Needing a more comfortable position, Harm shifted his position on the bunk. The passing by of Petty Officer Curtis and Torpedoman Maughn saved him from answering.

“Are you feeling better, Sir?”

“I’m getting there. How’s Communications these days?”

“The usual – because of the ice we have to work harder keeping the antennae in sync to receive messages. Other than that it’s hours of boredom interrupted by an occasional flash of hysteria. If you excuse me, I’m on duty in fifteen minutes.”

Harm’s eyes narrowed as Curtis departed with Maughn attached to his hip.

“What are you thinking?”

“There’s something I can’t put my finger on,” he answered, getting to his feet.

“Whoa, what do you think you’re doing!”

“Going to see the COB for some reports.”

“After what it just took to get you here. Tell me what you need. I’ll get them.”

It wasn’t the deep scowl or flaring nostrils, nor the blockaded stance of hands on hip. In the end, it was the look behind her eyes that managed to steer him back to his seat.

 

Two Hours Later

 

“Harm, we’re assuming Chief Watters description of the altercation in the reactor vault was factual. Somebody could have scuffed it with their shoe and he applied some literary license.”

“Something’s telling me that’s not the case, Mac.”

“Intuition?”

“There’s just something about this investigation that’s not sitting right, no pun intended,” he grimaced, shifting uncomfortably yet again.

“You’ve confirmed this was Lieutenant Rogala’s first tour on the Bradford, so he wasn’t the Engineering Officer involved.”

“Sixty-percent of the current crew weren’t serving on the Bradford during the time frame suggested.”

“That leaves forty-percent who were, including the Captain, XO, current COB, Corpsman and another 45 men.”

“That’s got to be part of it, Mac.”

“What does?”

“Why bring the investigation directly on-board the Bradford unless someone suspects the altercation did in fact occur and those involved are still here?”

“Because Chief Watters took the information to the grave with him.”

“Exactly. The Navy isn’t worried about the book making them look bad or containing technical information. It wants those involved identified.”

“Why go through the trouble for a school-yard scuffle?”

“Admiral Rickover instilled tyrannical methods to insure safety measures in the nuclear reactor program. That hasn’t changed. The Director of Naval Reactors still has a philosophy of rigid quality control. The Navy insists on a mindset in its ‘nukes’ that to err is not human. You have to be perfect. Otherwise, you’re out in the blink of an eye.”

“You were sent to flush them out?”

“It makes sense, doesn’t it?”

“Harm, I don’t like the sounds of that.”

“Excuse me, Ma’am’. Captain Morgan is requesting your presence in the Control Room,” Petty Officer Maughn interrupted nervously before returning to man his station just yards away.

“Thank you. Harm, promise me you won’t confront anyone on your own.”

“Mac, we’ve been here four days. Nothing has happened.”

“Promise me.”

“Fine, I promise.”

“Get some rest. We’ll pick this up later.”

 

Later



Harm looked up when the Corpsman entered the Torpedo Room with Miles Skibinski, the latter looking disturbingly out of sorts.

“Doc.”

“I’ll be right back to check you over, Commander. The XO needed space in enlisted berthing and asked that Mister Skibinski be relocated.”

“How are you?” Harm asked the young man.

“He’s still a little sedated,” Plunkett answered when the man stared confusingly at Harm, unsure of his surroundings.

“Is he dangerous?”

“The Captain doesn’t want to take any chances. I have orders to secure him to his rack if a guard isn’t present.”

“What about Cline?” Harm asked when Plunkett returned from the distasteful task.

“His presence was requested in the Control Room. Now I need to examine my handiwork.”

“So how am I?” Harm asked minutes later while a fresh bandage was applied.

“The incision is looking good. And your temp is finally normal. I’d say you’re out of the woods. But your duty station is this bed for another 24 hours except for visits to the head and meals. Stick to soup, pudding, and oatmeal for the next few days.”

“Confined to bed? Doc…”

“I mean it Commander. Don’t push it and you can walk off this sub instead of being carried off on a stretcher,” Plunkett admonished seeing the paperwork strewn about the bunk.

“Have we arrived at Kane Basin?” Harm asked, choosing not to waste energy arguing.

“I believe so. Scuttlebutt says Captain Morgan’s about to rig the ship for ultra-quiet. If that’s the case, you have no choice but to remain in your rack.”

 

An hour later

 

“Ship is rigged for ultra-quiet,” Master Chief McDonald quietly reported to the Captain.

“Very well COB.”

Harm is probably fuming Mac thought. With everyone not standing a current watch confined to their racks, both the mess and heads were also off-limits. The men couldn’t even listen to music through headphones. That left two choices – reading or sleeping. And Harm no doubt had enough of both by now.

“Navigation confirms we’re at the coordinates registered for origination of the seismic disturbance but passive sonar isn’t picking up anything,” the Sonarman reported.

“Do you know what happened?” Mac whispered.

“Scientists report there were bubble-pulse oscillations. That indicates an explosion rather than a collision. From the waveforms they estimate the explosion released energy equivalent to 250 kilograms of TNT,” Captain Morgan answered.

“About the energy of a modern torpedo.”

“Exactly.”

“What would the North Koreans be firing a torpedo at?”

“That’s difficult to determine unless we go to our HF sonar. Doing so would enable us to search for debris.”

“Why don’t we then?”

“Because the North Koreans could be hiding right under our nose waiting for us to do that very thing. We’d announce our own position and be a sitting duck. We’re taking a chance as it is keeping our overhead ice finding sonar engaged.”

“I thought we had their tonal signature?”

“We do. But they could be hiding in a thermocline. The change in water temperature is very good at muddling our passive sonar. So we’re going to sit here awhile and listen. The active and HF sonars will be employed when we decide to move.”

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

With his movement restricted and his stitches beginning to itch, Harm was going crazy. The reports Mac had obtained from the COB at least broke the monotony of lying on his back which he found less painful than sitting for any period of time.

Using the ship’s personnel manifest, he identified the 44 individuals on board who served with Chief Watters. Following a fleeting suspicion, he cross referenced the names with the Dolphin Progress Reports going back two years, further narrowing the list to those not fully qualified when the tour began.

He found most of them had eventually qualified in just over six months. However, one name in particular got his attention for having taken a full year to do so -- that being Torpedomans Mate Maughn.

Studying the grid, Harm noted the slow progress Maughn had made in his first ten months. The records also showed he had been tagged for possible addition to the ‘dink list’. It was hard to believe the same man did a sudden about face, finishing the majority of his qualifying work in the final two months, just under the wire of completing his first cruise.

“No! Nooo….Stop. Gotta stop!”

“Skibinski, wake up! You’re dreaming,” Harm quietly urged, getting to his feet as quickly as possible to wake the man.

“Dreaming?” Skibinski croaked through bleary eyes.

“Yeah, keep your voice down. The ship is rigged for ultra-quiet,” Harm whispered, leaning against the torpedo tubes while holding his side from the sudden exertion.

“Damn nightmare.”

“Doc brought you some sandwiches. You want one?” Harm asked relieved that the younger man seemed more lucid than when he arrived with the Corpsman.

“Yeah, sure.”

“What’s your story Miles? Did you serve in the Navy?”

“Why do you ask?”

Skibinski sat up, the plastic tie securing his right wrist to the bunk making it difficult to unwrap the sandwich Harm handed him.

“You seem to know your way around and are familiar with the lingo.”

“I completed Boat School and served four months of a tour. I qualified on fifty percent of the systems before they booted me off.”

“What happened?”

“They claimed I didn’t have the right ‘emotional make-up’ to make it on a sub. I finished up my commitment on shore and got out the first chance I had. If they didn’t was me on subs, I wasn’t about to stay in.”

“Your specialty was going to be Sonar?”

“Yeah.”

“You’ve obviously made some use of the training,” Harm stretched gently, grimacing when he reached the edge of his limits.

“I guess.”

“How likely is it someone could qualify on seventy-five percent of the systems in two months?”

“There’s no way. It took the most ambitious guys four months to cover that much ground. What’s going to happen to me?” he asked quietly when Harm appeared deep in thought, the creaking of ice groaning around them.

“It depends on whether or not the Captain prefers charges. Unfortunately, I don’t think either of us is on his list of esteemed visitors.”

 

Control Room

 

“Captain, we’re picking up an SOS! Echoes indicate it’s being banged against a hull.”

“Designate it Sierra Thirty,” Captain Morgan ordered the Sonarman, assigning a number to the sonar contact. He hurried to take a look at the display. “Are there any radio transmissions?”

“Affirmative. It’s on a short range frequency,” Petty Officer Curtis reported.

“Do we have range and bearing on Sierra Thirty?”

“Negative, Captain. We only have one good leg for Target Motion Analysis. Advise changing course thirty degrees west, four-degree down angle to get a second,” the Weapons Control Officer replied.

“Make it so,” Morgan ordered putting his faith in the accuracy of the Navigation System and the sea charts, rather than going active.

Mac watched the activity increased around her, uncertain why the Weapons Control Officer was involved at this stage of the game. The Captain answered her unspoken question moments later.

“We’re taking precautions before we make contact with them.”

 

Torpedo Room

 

“We never finished our talk, Commander Rabb.”

“You startled me, Pochatko.” Harm turned quickly, reaching out to steady himself when the XO appeared out of no where.

“Sorry, let’s go back to your rack.”

“We’ll talk later, Miles,” Harm whispered.

“Maughn, advise Control of my whereabouts,” Pochatko kept his voice low while assisting Harm by the arm.

“Aye, Sir.”

“You broke ultra-silent running, Rabb.”

“I thought it better than the alternative. Skibinski was having a nightmare.”

“It probably was. Here, let me give you a hand.”

“Thanks.”

Harm’s eyes fell upon the badly scuffed watch crystal as he grasped the XO’s wrist. Easing onto the low bunk, his memory recalled a vision of the XO towering over him as he lay vulnerable on the Wardroom table. It was just before succumbing to the affects of the anesthesia.

The thick manuscript by his hip, he recalled the wording Watters’ fictional character had written in his personal journey regarding the incident at the reactor vault. The hairs rose on the back of Harm’s neck.

‘No damage was done, except for my wristwatch.’

“Is something wrong?”

“Just dizzy.”

“Dolphin Progress Reports,” Pochatko commented, nonchalantly fingering the paperwork on the bunk as Harm sat back against the bulkhead.

“They’re part of my investigation.”

“Are you making any progress?”

“I’m narrowing the field.”

If there had been any doubt, the concern clouding the man’s eyes confirmed for Harm what he had stumbled onto. Any further discussion was interrupted by orders coming over the 1MC.

 

Control Room

 

“TMA completed on the source of the SOS. We have three good legs. Bearing and distance entered into computer,” Weps reported.

“I’ve got the XO on the phone, Captain,” Petty Officer Curtis advised.

“XO, we’re preparing to break radio silence. We have a solution ready. I want a fish lined up in the tube just in case,” Captain Morgan advised through the handset.

“Petty Officer Maughn and I are on it, Captain,” Pochatko said.

Harm and Skibinski watched as the XO transferred the data from the Weapons Control Officer into the presets of the massive Mark 48 torpedo sitting in Tube One, mere feet from them.

“What’s happening?” Skibinski asked.

“We suspect a North Korean sub has issued an SOS. In case it’s a trick, the Captain wants to be prepared before we establish contact with them,” Petty Officer Maughn shared.

“North Koreans!”

“Calm down, it’s just a precaution,” the XO warned.

“Torpedo room hatch closed and dogged. Making Tube One primary, Tube Two backup,” Maughn advised, following protocol to insure the compartment remained water tight in case of a serious mishap.

“Breech door on Tube One closed and locked. Flood the tube and equalize sea pressure,” Potchako ordered.

“Flooding tube and equalizing pressure, aye,” Maughn responded.

“You don’t flood the tube by opening the muzzle door?” Harm asked.

“They can but they’re using an internal tank of water instead,” Skibinski answered when the question went ignored by the Bradford crewmen.

“It’s quieter and safer,” he shrugged when Harm looked at him questioningly.

“Very good, Skibinski. It appears you at least passed torpedo operations.” The XO made his way over to where Harm remained seated. “The fates are cooperating so nicely.”

“What are you doing!” Skibinski cried when Pochatko unexpectedly pulled Harm roughly to his feet, throwing him up against the nearest bulkhead.

In his weakened state, Harm’s defensive measures were pitifully inadequate to neutralize the two vicious right jabs Pochatko unleashed to his healing abdomen. Doubling over, he lost his balance and fell to the floor, unaware that Petty Officer Maughn watched as he writhed in pain.

“Taking care of loose ends. Rabb’s onto us. Our careers will be over if he reports our involvement in a bent spear incident,” Maughn answered.

“Bent spear?”

“Broken arrow, empty quiver, bent spear – DOD code words indicating the severity of an incident involving a nuclear system,” Pochatko explained disgustedly, positioning his foot under Harm’s to flip him onto his back.

“They were…fighting in the reactor vault.” Harm squeezed his eyes shut, trying to get the pain under control.

“Well one of us was. It’s a pity my watch made that unfortunate mark on the wall.”

Pochatko continued staring at the floor. He slowly placed his heel on Harm’s hip, grinning as he ground it in.

“Maughn was…blackmailing you…That’s how he…got you to sign off…on his quals…What did he have on you?”

“I’d tell you but there isn’t time.”

Pochatko removed his foot. He grabbed the remote control for the hydraulic ram while Maughn harnessed the torpedo on the nearest storage rack. The hydraulic system had replaced brute manpower as the means to maneuver the torpedoes from their racks to the firing tubes.

“What are you going to do?” Skibinski asked.

“Arrange an accident. No one will doubt you went berserk again under the pressure, broke your restraint, and caused another unfortunate mishap. Your fingerprints on the remote will incriminate you. You won’t be around to tell it any different since in my attempt to subdue you, you suffer a fatal head injury,” Pochatko answered.

“Petty Officer Curtis is involved too…Is he who you were fighting with in the vault?” Harm sought answers even as the 3200 pound torpedo supposedly destined for Tube Two hovered in the air three feet above him.

“How do you figure that?” Maughn asked when Pochatko stepped aside to take a call from Captain Morgan, leaving the torpedo fully suspended off its supports.

“’In Sync’ was a character in Watters’ book…who didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut…I suspected Curtis after he mentioned he was responsible for keeping the radio antennas synchronized to receive messages…That and your reaction to his loose lips about the OPORDS.”

“You’re pretty good, Commander. I see why Pochtako was worried,” Maughn said.

“His stitches have given way,” Skibinski said seeing the blood spread across Harm’s hip.

“He’s going to have more to worry about than that,” Pochatko informed them, returning from his call.

 

Control Room

 

Robert Cline perspired while he assisted with the HF sonar. It had been engaged ever since XO Pochatko confirmed a torpedo was aligned and primed for firing in Tube One.

“This is worse than before. It’s like running a gauntlet.”

The jagged peaks of the undersea mountain were equaled by inverted shards of ice extending down overhead. Visualizing it all on the 3-D display drove the challenges home.

“This is Captain Morgan of the U.S. ship SSN Bradford. What is the nature of your distress?” Morgan transmitted over the SOS radio frequency.

He repeated the question two more times, growing increasingly nervous each time it went unanswered.

“Sonar is no longer picking up the SOS from the hull, Captain.”

Despite the cessation of sonar contact Sierra Thirty, the radio transmission sending the universal distress signal continued unabated over the speaker in the Control room. Mac and Cline exchanged worried glances while everyone steadfastly manned their stations.

“I repeat, what is…”

“SSN Bradford, this is Captain Wook Sung Yoo of the North Korean ship, Bright Future…”

A weak, garbled reply finally broke the impasse. Mac struggled to hear the barely audible voice. The thick Asian accent and degraded communications making it difficult.

“Our navigation system failed. We damaged our rudder and horizontal planes when we hit a mountain ridge. We had no choice but do an emergency blow hoping to break through the icepack. But it was too thick and we are now pinned against it. Life support is performing erratically. We anticipate total failure in 24 hours.”

“What were you doing in the area?” Morgan asked.

“I believe it’s called political posturing.”

“We registered a torpedo explosion three days ago.”

“Yes, yes. We attempted to dislodge ourselves. Our hope was that by firing a torpedo through the ice, the pack would break up, enabling us to surface. Unfortunately it did not work.”

“Are you carrying nuclear warheads?”

“Yes, we have one nuclear tipped missile on board.”

“Stand by,” Morgan replied, taking his finger off the transmit key.

“What will you do now?” Mac asked.

“We can’t tow them away and it will be days before a submersible rescue sub arrives on scene.” Morgan came around to stand behind the young man monitoring the HF sonar. “Display a graphic showing a one-mile radius from our current position.”

“What are you thinking?” Cline asked, helping to fine tune the result.

“Firing a torpedo right here might just do it,” Morgan answered pointing to a position on the screen.

“But Captain Yoo attempted that and failed,” Mac said.

“Yoo pierced an inconsequential hole through the surface.”

“What will you do different?” Cline asked.

“Detonate the torpedo just below the surface. Doing so will unleash a hell of a lot more power and just might open a polynya through which the Koreans can surface…Weps, prepare a new solution for these coordinates. Navigation, put some distance between us and the Bright Future.”

 

Fifteen Minutes Later
Torpedo Room

 

“The new solution is entered into the pre-sets. Standing by for orders to fire Tube One,” Pochatko reported calmly, glaring a warning at Harm and Skibinski to remain quiet.

“Fire at will,” Morgan ordered.

The whoosh of the torpedo vacating the tube could be heard two levels away. Its detonation three-quarters of a mile from the Bradford could be heard for miles. Seconds later the ice around them seemingly groaned in despair. The first shock waves reached them shortly thereafter.

“Time to finish moving this fish to Tube Two,” Pochatko said.

He hydraulically maneuvered the massive torpedo until it hung perpendicular over where Maughn was firmly pinning Harm’s legs to the floor.

“You won’t get away with this,” Harm said. His voice was weak and lacked conviction.

“We pretty much already have.”

Hovering just eighteen inches above, the curve of the cylindrical torpedo blocked Harm’s view of everyone else in the room. More terrified and alone than he’d ever been in his life, he offered up silent prayers. His stomach muscles ignited in flames from the effort to break free of Maughn’s grip.

“How do you want it, slow or abrupt?”

Harm refused to answer.

“Fine, slow it is,” Pochatko said.

Harm’s eyes involuntarily shut, his subconscious not allowing them to watch the final approach even as his arms persisted in pushing futilely against the cold metal surface.

“Nooooo…stop, you’ll kill him,” Skibinski cried.

Pochatko back-handed him across the mouth to silence him.

 

Control Room

 

“Rebound waves are reaching the Bradford now.” Captain Morgan grasped the nearest handhold as others did likewise.

The ship tilted slowly fifty degrees to starboard and then the same amount to port, the movement causing everyone to tighten their grips.

“Are we far enough away?” Cline asked.

“The ballast tanks below will prevent us from rolling over,” Morgan answered, raising his voice to be heard over the unusually loud grinding of the ice.

No sooner were the words out of his mouth when the ship was roughly buffeted back to starboard. The movement coincided with the stern pitching downward at a forty-five degree angle, rivaling any E-ticket amusement park ride. The banging and ringing of steel vibrated through to the soles of their feet. Losing their holds, several men slid backwards as the unexpected torque threw the ship off its intended heading. Everything not tethered down went flying with them to the back of the room.

“We’ve been stuck by a block of falling ice. It measured ten by thirty feet, a 25-ton ice cube!” a Sonarman strapped in his seat yelled while others struggled to resume their stations.

Her knuckles turning white, Mac held tight with two hands. Smaller chunks rained down, reverberating through the hull. Previously dislodged pieces struck the keel in their attempt to float back up. It seemed like forever before the ship ceased its bucking, locked in place at a thirty-degree up angle while listing 10 degrees to starboard.

“It’s pushed us into an iceberg. Our rudder is hung up. The bow is wedged under a rocky shelf,” another reported interpreting his own high resolution screen.

“The main ballast tanks aren’t compensating.”

Morgan shouted to be heard above the blaring collision klaxon as he worked the controls over his head to level the ship.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

“Commander…Commander Rabb! Can you hear me?” Skibinski shouted.

With the insistent voice rallying his efforts to regain consciousness, Harm fought to get air into his lungs -- unsure why each tortured attempt yielded minimal intake and piercing results.

Then he remembered Petty Officer Maughn’s grip on his legs loosening as the suspended torpedo swayed dangerously with the wild pitching and yawing of the Bradford.

Not wanting to squander the opportunity, he’d used a Herculean effort to escape out from beneath the deadly ordnance. Getting halfway to his feet, the last thing he remembered was being flung back to the floor as the torpedo exploded.

Except it wasn’t the torpedo after all, it was his body internally combusting. That awareness brought a realization that maybe waking up wasn’t such a good idea. The fires burning in different parts of his body all coalesced into a clump of abject agony. But the misery also meant he was alive and that knowledge gave him the fortitude to open his eyes.

“Commander Rabb! Can you hear me?”

“Yeah. What happe…,”

Harm stopped suddenly seeing the grisly destruction. In that instant he had a pretty good idea of what hell must be like.

Peering over the top of the metallic cylinder, he could make out the legs of the now deceased Raymond Pochatko a scant few feet from him. The rest of the body was under the torpedo where only minutes earlier he himself had laid.

More gruesome, however, was the body of the Petty Officer. Harm gasped involuntarily seeing the torpedo propeller embedded squarely in the center of the man’s chest. Skewered against the aft bulkhead, his wide open eyes stared back at Harm in a perpetual state of surprise.

“Oh God.”

It wasn’t until he attempted lifting his own head higher to focus on Skibinski that Harm found it positioned well below his feet as the floor angled steeply upwards. A gash directly above his brow spewed blood into his eye, complicating matters.

It was odd feeling his left arm and leg moving freely in the air while his searing right appendages found no such freedom. Looking up the length of his elongated body, he found it parallel with the monstrous weapon, half his limbs and torso wedged tightly between its convex curve and an unrelenting stowage rack.

“Can you move?”

“No.” It was all he could muster at the moment.

“When the ship pitched, Maughn was tossed against the bulkhead. Then Pochatko lost his footing and slipped beneath the torpedo. He must have inadvertently dropped it on himself.”

The software techncian seemed determined to regain his composure now that he was no longer alone in the nightmare. Harm let him fill in the details. Nevertheless, he was surprised to see him get to his feet.

“You’re free?”

“Panic comes in handy occasionally.” Skibinski showed him the severed tie before carefully making his way down and over to him. “Let me give you a hand.”

Grasping Harm’s upper arm, he tugged. The futile attempt caused Harm to cry out, turning his face deathly pale. An attempt to budge the massive weight with his shoulder was equally unsuccessful.

“Get…help.”

“The hatch is jammed!”

“Intercom...”

“It’s not working either!”

“Stay calm…We’ll get out of this…What about ram?”

Compensating for his encumbered breathing, Harm kept his sentences short. Each scorching gasp made it harder to take another.

“The harness slipped its ratchet. It’ll take six men to get it back on track.”

 

Control Room

 

“Have the XO report to Control,” Morgan ordered, killing the alarm.

“The intercom isn’t working, Sir. A leak from the colliding ice allowed sea water to enter the Radio Shack. It must have shorted out the amplifiers. The phones are out too,” Petty Officer Curtis reported.

“Then send someone after him and spread the word to walk damage reports to Control.”

“Aye, Sir.”

“Will we be able to move?” Mac asked, growing uncomfortable with being stuck in place at the odd angle.

“The forward ballast tanks are completely full and we’ve blown those in the aft section. With the rudder hung up, there’s not enough weight to drop the bow out from beneath the shelf we’re pinned under.”

“Options?”

“Being evaluated. Worst case scenario, we can radio a distress signal and launch a buoy that will transmit a distress call and our location. A rescue submersible could be here in three days. ”

“Sir, Chief of Life Support is reporting a catastrophic casualty with the oxygen generator. He’s estimating 10 hours of breathable air,” a technician reported, breathlessly arriving with the damage report.

“Damn! That just narrowed our options,” Morgan said.

“Doc is reporting several broken bones and concussions. He’s using the Wardroom for triage,” another messenger reported.

“Sir, there’s a problem in the Torpedo Room,” came another report.

“What’s wrong there?” Mac couldn’t keep from echoing the Captain’s own inquiry as her eyes tried to penetrate two levels down.

 

Outside the Torpedo Room

 

After the messenger reported a mishap had incapacitated Pochatko and Maughn, Mac tensed. Then when Captain Morgan hadn’t allowed her to join him on the lower level, arguing the passageway was already too congested and treacherous to maneuver, her unease grew tenfold.

It wasn’t until an hour later that a degree of her fears were relieved when she was permitted below. Negotiating the distance had been difficult given the angle of the ladders and steps. But nothing, not even orders, were going to prevent her any longer from checking on Harm -- especially now that attempts to rock the sub free had failed and precious remaining hours were slipping by.

“What’s going on?” she asked, arriving in the canted corridor in time to find the Captain and two junior officers in the midst of a serious debate.

“We’re considering a plan that Commander Rabb has suggested.”

“Harm’s all right?” Mac asked.

The relief in her voice was tempered by the closed hatch and the presence of the men standing outside the room rather than in it.

“For the time being. The hatch is stuck.”

“How much longer?” she asked the technician working on the problem.

“Unknown. The hatch frame could be bent.”

“Why won’t Commander Rabb come to the door?” Mac shouted the question to Skibinski standing on the other side.

“He’s busy, Ma’am. He wants to know if Captain Morgan approves of his idea.”

“Damn him,” she said to herself.

“He said to tell you he still owes you a lasagna dinner and that he has things to discuss.”

Feeling guilty after the disembodied voice conveyed the message, Mac sagged wearily against the bulkhead. At least he’s still alive. Still she knew there was something Harm, Skibinski and the Captain weren’t sharing.

“Is there any decision yet, Ma’am?” Skibinski asked when she didn’t reply.

“It’s a long shot. But we’re going to go for it,” Captain Morgan advised from behind.

“Harm’s good at long shots,” Mac whispered, more for herself than anyone present.

 

Torpedo Room

 

“How are you feeling?”

Skibinski pulled the woolen hat from his duffel and secured it on Harm’s head before tucking his North Face parka around the pinned officer. Topping his work off with yet another blanket, they both silently contemplated the similar cloaks he’d already tied around the bodies of the two Bradford crewmen.

“Toasty.”

Skibinski continued stuffing more insulation anywhere it would fit.

“Are you sure you don’t want to wait for others to handle this?”

“They can’t open…hatch.” Harm coughed painfully. “Seven hours left…to get out of… tight spot.”

The quip did little to ease the man’s skittishness or build his confidence.

“I don’t know if I can do it.”

“You’ll be fine…Your head will always be…above tubes.”

“I don’t understand why you didn’t want Colonel MacKenzie to know about, well things,” Skibinski motioned to the space around him.

“No need…to worry her more.”

“Here’s the snorkel. It’s the best I could find.”

Harm accepted the salvaged pipe with his left hand, uncertain if he’d be able to use when the time came.

“Good…Now…get…to it.”

 

Control Room

 

Debating whether to stay in the passageway and be physically closer to Harm or join the others in the Control Room, Mac opted for the latter for the time being.

“Any idea how long this will take?” she asked.

“Take the cubic feet of each tube, multiply it by the weight of a cubic foot of water, and times it by four tubes and you’ve got the amount of water capable of being let into the room each cycle,” Captain Morgan answered.

“The problem is you don’t know how much more weight is needed.”

“Correct. All we can do is monitor the gauge for an indication the bow is lowering due to the additional ballast.”

 

Forty Minutes Later
Torpedo Room

 

Harm shivered as yet another round of water spewed out of the torpedo tubes. Meanwhile, Skibinski continued the routine. The frenetic pace kept the latter from dwelling to deeply on their situation.

While Harm’s left leg and arm and most of his chest still remained blessedly dry, the two lower tubes formed a rushing river, re-soaking his right half each time they emptied. Simultaneously, the two upper tubes generated side-by-side waterfalls that splattered on the linoleum. They too eventually flowed down to the deepening pool forming against the aft bulkhead, its expanding borders rapidly nearing his mouth.

“It’s…cccold.”

“Thirty-four degrees Fahrenheit, same as the water in all the oceans at this depth,” Skibinski said, closing all four breech doors before opening the muzzle doors, exposing the interior of the tubes to the Arctic seawater.

“That’s a…ccccomfort,” Harm wheezed, longing for the pressure against his chest to relent.

“In case you weren’t aware, there’s a built in failsafe to insure the muzzle doors can’t be opened until the breech doors are closed and vice versa. It’s designed that way to prevent unintentional and catastrophic flooding. The designers didn’t figure anyone in their right mind would intentionally flood the space!”

“You need…to work…on your…bedside manner,” Harm said weakly, no longer able to feel his previously scorching right limbs.

“I bet you’ve never found yourself in circumstances like these before.”

Skibinski again opened each of the breech doors. Harm stared at the man uncertainly, his oxygen-deprived mind confusing the most recent onslaught of frigid water with past events. Images of being trapped in the brig on the Suribachi blended with his struggle to survive in the cold Atlantic, morphing into the flooding caused by the torpedo strike on the Vasiliev.

“Commander?” Skibinski asked worriedly, stopping his feverish pace to lift Harm’s chin out of the water.

“I’m here,” Harm sputtered, spitting out a mouthful of water.

“I think it’s time for the snorkel.”

 

Control Room

 

“There’s a ten degree shift,” Captain Morgan reported.

“It’s working! The bow’s now fifteen degrees lower,” he said minutes later.

“Come on…come on. We need another five degrees for the sail to clear the shelf,” Cline reported, watching the developments on the HF sonar screen.

“Have Engineering stand by to move ahead one-third,” Morgan ordered a runner.

“Aye, Sir.”

“I’m going below,” Mac informed Morgan, her own feet telling her what the gauges and sonar were confirming. The additional five degrees were quick in coming.

“Doc, go with her.”

“You know, don’t you?” Mac asked accusingly as they traversed the steep steps to the torpedo room.

“Know what?” the Corpsman asked fidgeting.

“Whatever it is I’m not being told. Tell me. I’ll make it an order if I have to,” she demanded, pausing outside the hatch where two technicians were waiting to resume their work once the order was given.

“The Commander is pinned to a storage rack by a torpedo. It’s likely he would have eventually been submerged by the level of the water flooding the room.”

“No! Oh God. Harm!”

Mac pounded her fists against the hatch as she envisioned the scene.

 

Twenty-five Minutes Later

 

Knowing it was Harm’s idea that had enabled the Bradford to successfully navigate out from under the rocky shelf brought Mac little comfort, despite Skibinski’s assurance he was still alive. The inadequate details the man supplied were infuriating and only fueled the nightmarish wait, conjuring up one worst case scenario after another.

“It’s safe.”

Skibinski’s words startled her out of the sullen trance she’d been spiraling into.

“The water level is below the knee knocker?” Morgan verified.

“Yes, the emergency pumps did their work. Hurry!”

“How’s Harm?” Mac yelled.

“He’s been unconscious for twenty minutes.”

“Any luck?” Doc asked the man working on the hatch.

“No, Sir. It’s not budging. It may be time for the cutting torches.”

“We need to get in there now!” Mac shouted, again pounding her fist against the stubborn entryway, cursing its existence under her breath.

“I think that’s done it, Ma’am!” the young technician said as the wheel suddenly found purchase and opened.

“Hurry!”

Six pairs of feet sloshed through the frigid water remaining on the floor, suddenly stopping in unison. Six minds struggled to comprehend the concealing blankets, their edges swirling disturbingly in the water as if begging for release. Six pairs of eyes registered the horror of the immense torpedo still holding a living prey in its cold clutches.

“Harm! Oh God. Get him out of there!”

Mac fell to her knees beside him. She gently cupped his head, the saturated cap dripping rivulets of water down her hands as she leaned across the torpedo, careful not to add any additional weight to his plight.

Simultaneously crying and praying, she gently ran her thumb over his swollen black eye before moving her finger tips to his bluish lips.

“He’s not breathing!”

“I need this torpedo moved, now!” Doc ordered.

“We’ll have to do it manually,” Skibinski informed the men hurriedly taking up positions.

“Okay, one…two…three!” Doc directed.

It took their combined effort to get the green monster to release its obstinate hold. Mac’s eyes filled with tears hearing the sound of Pochatko’s bones grating and Maughn’s body hitting the water. Bile rose in her throat. Skibinski quickly covered the portion of the XO’s body that until now he didn’t have access to. All were grateful it was positioned face down.

“I’ve got Harm,” Mac said.

She was intent on preventing his head and shoulders from sinking below the foot of water remaining on the floor. Clutching his limp form while Doc bagged him, she couldn’t contain her sob when her eyes fell upon his doubled over wrist and equally awkwardly bent ankle.

“He’s drawing a breath…Come on Commander, take another for me…Good. Get the stretcher and be careful of his ribs,” Doc ordered, assured the flow of air continued.

Pulling away the remaining insulation used to prevent Harm from dying of hypothermia and shock, he made a preliminary assessment of the injuries.

 

Hours later
XO’s Stateroom

 

Doc withdrew the rectal thermometer, blushing at having Mac present as he did so. But he knew no amount of cajoling was going to keep the Marine from this man’s side. The riot act she’d read to attend his appendectomy was still too fresh in his mind. He gently returned Harm onto his back before re-tucking he blankes.

“His core temperature is in the safe range. I think we can dispense with the hot water bottles and warmed oxygen.” Doc continued the one-sided conversation while he checked the IV. “Everyone’s been asking about him. They all feel they owe him their lives, me included.”

He didn’t quite understand the woman’s silence. Then again, she’d seen and been through a lot. She was there when they’d lifted the Commander’s battered body onto the stretcher, following as they man-handled it up a level and around the corners to the XO’s tiny stateroom. The tight confines making it necessary to jostle it more than desired.

She was there when he cut away the wet clothes, exposing the awful bruising along the length of his body and the new abuse to his torso, including three broken ribs. She’d stuck around while he used the portable x-ray machine and subsequently helped tape said ribs.

For a minute, he was certain she’d pass out reviewing the films showing the mangled wrist and ankle. He himself had nearly done so when the time came to straighten them. But she held herself together and assisted with the casts on both.

She watched him clean and repair the torn incision. And wrung her hands when he checked twice for internal injuries – knowing full well she’d seen the surprise on his face when he didn’t find any the first time. And she’d hung in stoically while he started another IV and sutured eight stitches to close the cut above Rabb’s eye.

He remembered how she’d moved next to the bunk, paying close attention as he checked the dilation of the swollen eye. Her unrelenting questions about brain damage from oxygen deprivation followed. She hadn’t liked hearing he had little means to evaluate the affects until the Commander woke up.

Neither had voiced it, but they both knew Harm’s selfless giving of himself might ultimately be his Achille’s heel. And while he now checked his patient’s vitals one more time, she waited for the courageous man to wake up.

Maybe her silence wasn’t so hard to understand after all.

“Ma’am, the intercom and phone are fixed. I’ll check on him periodically. Get some sleep, Doctor’s orders. When you wake up, it might help to talk to him. I’ve got to go deal with some pretty miserable sailors.”

 

 

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