The Willow Society

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21:45 South China Seas

Aboard the USS Submarine Descender

“Sir. . .“ the officer said, trying to keep the waver out of his voice and failing miserably. His hand even shook a bit as he handed the little scrap of paper to the Captain. Captain Evan Townshend pretended not to notice strange behavior, after all, Lt. Marshall was usually top notch, his skills as a navigator beyond excellent. Remembering that made Townshend pause. He looked down at the slip of paper in Marshall's hand. Marshall swallowed hard. "It's a course change, sir.“ There it was again, the man's voice was near to cracking. Sighing, not necessarily because of the waver in Marshall's voice but more because he would have to lecture the man later in private and possibly even discipline him, neither of which Townshend really wanted to do. But he was a man of duty. Townshend took the slip of paper managing not to snatch it only thanks to years of patient control of his temper and emotions.

Looking down, Townshend opened the folded slip and quickly scanned the contents. A course change? Marshall's words seemed to penetrate his mind now as though coming from a great distance and only now reaching him as an echo. Descender was on a classified mission, its purpose known only to Townshend and the NSA Agent embedded in the crew, whomever he was. Not even Townshend knew that information, which galled him to the nth degree. Of course he had not questioned his orders nor batted an eyelid when told such a person would be embedded within his crew, unknown to anyone except the agent himself, Townshend had not risen to the rank of Captain by questioning his superiors. Still, it galled, and he could not get that fly to stop buzzing his ear. Townshend's control slipped. He frowned in disapproval, thinking of the agent.

Marshall caught the frown and assumed it was for him, the officer shook visibly and swallowed hard again refusing to look directly at Townshend. But Townshend wasn't frowning for long. His face dropped into open astonishment when he read the type on the paper. But he was not a man to question orders. Folding the slip of paper back in half Townshend handed it back to Marshall. Leaning over, Townshend nodded at Marshall and said, “Course change.“

Marshall gulped.

Again? A third time? Townshend swore, internally making a mental note to be more than firm when he finally got a moment to set Marshall down properly. If the man couldn't get himself together Townshend would be forced to relieve him of command.

Putting that out of his head for the time being, Townshend fired off the coordinates he had read and memorized from the slip of paper. Townshend nearly swore out loud when the navigator, a man Townshend would have sworn was all but unflappable, actually turned around in his seat and stared, goggle-eyed back at him. Has my entire crew gone crazy?

“You have your orders, Ensign.“ Townshend said, half-snarl, half-bark through clenched teeth. Snapping visibly, the young man twirled around and began entering the course change coordinates. Townshend saw Marshall was sweating. The man had well and truly lost his marbles!

“Lt. Marshall. My quarters. Now.“ Townshend did bark this time and paid no mind to the frightened squawk which issued from Marshall's mouth.

Two hours later, Captain Townshend sat in his quarters, trying to unwind, reading through reports when a tap on his door caught his attention.

“Enter.“ Townshend said, a tad harsher than he intended when Corporal Kaisen ducked his head inside. Ordinarily, maintaining his door would be the job of Sergeant Mathers, but Mathers was now on deck - having taken the command of Lt. Marshall, now consigned to quarters for dereliction of duty. Seeing Kaisen's face made Townshend swear out loud. Kaisen's face drained of color.

“What is it, Corporal?“ Townshend, stressing the word corporal, making it clear the rank could be changed, and quick. Swallowing hard in a manner so reminiscent of Marshall it made Townshend's stomach lurch, Kaisen said, "It's the navigator, sir. He's requesting... a...”

“Spit it out, Corporal!” Townshend barked.

“A course change, sir!“

Townshend's eyebrows almost climbed off his face. What? The navigator? An Ensign was requesting a course change? This really is madness. Townshend buttoned up his shirt and made his way to the bridge, Kaisen close behind.

“What is the meaning of this?“ Townshend shouted, “Sailor, have you lost your fucking mind?“ Ensign Chambers had a look of near terror on his face. It made Townshend stop cold. Ensign Chambers had ice for blood.

“It's the course change, sir. From CCOM. Earlier.“ Chambers said, as if Townshend could have forgotten. Townshend nodded tersely. “It takes us...“

“ENSIGN!“ Townshend barked when Chambers hesitated.

“North Korea, sir. Restricted waters, sir. Then.... Well it leads us dead into the center of their navy, sir.“

Townshend blinked. The man must be daft! Or confused. CCOM would not have sent us on such a course. Townshend recalled Marshall's reaction. Pieces fell together in his mind. Marshall is the NSA agent. Worse, he knew Marshall, a former navigator, perhaps the best Townshend had ever worked with, could map coordinates in his head. The man had known exactly what they were heading towards!

Townshend's mind worked furiously and he shouted “Course change! Ensign turns this bloated bitch around now! We're heading back to base! And I want SILENCE!“ The navigator gave Townshend a thin, relieved smile, turned around to enter the coordinates. But then two things happened. An alarm sounded on the intercom. The sonar man screamed, “Incoming sir!“ Townshend felt himself go rigid. Everything had gone wrong. But he had been a sailor for decades, this wasn't his first time in trouble.

“Red alert!“ Townshend screamed, “Battle positions!“

“It's too late sir!“ the sonar man screamed, “It's gonna...”

The world exploded around Townshend.

His last thought was bitter - he wished he had allowed himself that shot of brandy after he disciplined Marshall. Fat lot of good that did!


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