Verse 34: DON'T BRING ME DOWN
Monday, 4 August.
Aboard SSN Ann Arbor, a nuclear-powered hunter submarine cruising 560 nautical miles east of Charleston, SC, at a depth of 300 feet, all was relatively quiet on the dogwatch. Chief Carter Makem took another swig of lukewarm coffee and stared at the sonar screen. The Chief generally preferred working the third shift. A Los Angeles class sub is a tube a bit longer than a football field, and about a third as wide, but since most of that volume is filled by things needed to keep 134 humans alive for extended periods underwater, it gets pretty damned claustrophobic at times. Though no introvert, Chief Makem did appreciate the solitude of the dogwatch. In these post-Cold War days, with sixty percent of the once mighty Russian submarine fleet mothballed, not much potentially hostile traffic in the North Atlantic remained. The Hunt for Dead October, the crew joked among themselves. Makem adjusted his headphones until they fit more comfortably, and waited contentedly for nothing to happen.
At 0330 EDT (0730 Zulu for sticklers about that sort of thing), he picked up a contact at the farthest reaches of his screen's coverage. The recorder clicked on automatically and he sat a little straighter in his chair.
"Holy jumpin' catfish!" he whispered as he watched the blip. This could not possibly be correct, but no piece of equipment underwent more rigorous diagnostics than the sonar array. "Mister Unger?" he called loudly. "You better come quick and have a look at this!"
Lt. Sabastian Unger strode over to Makem's station. "What's up, Chief?
"Take a look, sir!"
Unger peered at the screen. "Is this thing working right?"
"Yessir. Checked it myself at the start of shift."
Unger and Makem watched the long, slightly indistinct, blip for several seconds. "Are you sure that’s one contact?" Unger asked.
Makem shrugged, "Computer seems to think so."
"I'd better tell the Boss," Unger decided. He reached for the horn and pressed two digits. "Captain? Sorry to disturb you, but you'd better come to the bridge. We have a contact moving at 152, repeat one-five-two knots, range 1800 meters, bearing zero-eight-zero. Yessir. That speed is confirmed. And sir? I know how crazy this sounds, but according to the screen the contact is about a quarter-mile long."
Captain Silas Vanka reviewed the screen a minute later, just in time to see the contact pass out of sonar range. He directed the Chief to replay the entire sequence, twice. The immense fuzzy shape sped through the display exactly the same way each time.
"Thoughts, gentlemen?" he demanded.
"No idea, sir," Makem stated flatly. "I don't know anything that moves that fast short of a Budweiser rocket boat, but that thing's the size of an aircraft carrier. Not many of either at these depths. Leastwise not on purpose." Unger nodded in agreement.
"Could it be a biological?" Vanka asked.
"What? A mega-whale with explosive flatulence?" Unger scoffed.
The Captain made a quick decision. "Take us topside, Mister Unger. I'd better alert Norfolk."
At 0358, Captain Vanka established radio contact via secure channels with the Active Duty Officer at Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, VA. The ADO, after being convinced that this was neither a trick designed to make him look stupid nor the rantings of a sub driver who'd spent too many hours locked in a can, woke Vice Admiral Bradley Clearmountain (ComSubLant) and Admiral Reuben Weisman, (Commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet) at 0410. By 0430 both admirals had arrived and scanned the flash traffic. Five minutes later Weisman contacted the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, on maneuvers243 miles off the coast of Virginia, briefed Captain Ioseph Zefirelli on the situation and ordered him to task two E2C-Hawkeyes to check the wild story out. The Hawkeye is the Navy's all-weather, carrier-based, tactical battle management, command and control aircraft, a cross between a seaplane and an AWACS. In other words, it’s a spy plane.
With the cool precision of thousands of practice runs, the Hawkeyes were wheels up at 0455. Assuming, for want of better data, that the contact would continue at its reported speed and heading, their pilots executed a standard search pattern on that vector. At 0527, Hawkeye One verified contact due east of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
"Enterprise, we have visual. Target running estimated six-zero feet sub-surface. Target is generating one helluva wake."
"Stay with it, Hawkeye One," Zefirelli ordered, then relayed the intel to Norfolk.
"Where is this thing headed?" Admiral Clearmountain asked the ADO.
He consulted a chart. "Best guess, sir? If it maintains this course – Groton."
Admiral Weisman pursed his lips. Groton, CT, is the homebase for the entire Atlantic submarine fleet, headquarters of the United State's largest submarine manufacturer, and an obvious target for terrorists. The Admiral made a quick series of command decisions.
"Contact the base commander and put him on Red Alert," he barked. "All boats currently in dock and nominally operational are to put to sea immediately. Send similar orders to Coast Guard and Naval facilities on Long Island and the entire southern New England coast. And get me the CNO and SecNav."
The Chief of Naval Operations and the Secretary of the Navy shared a car in from Arlington. Traffic was light that early in the morning, and they breezed over the 14th Street Bridge and soon pulled up to the west entrance at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The President, Chief of Staff, and National Security Advisor were already in the Situation Room. The Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the President's father, all out of town, attended by scrambled HDV. Last to arrive was the Director of Central Intelligence, who had been waiting for satellite photos to be enlarged.
"All right, folks," the Chief of Staff called the meeting to order. "What's the sitrep?"
The CNO filled everyone in on the basics. DCI passed around photos, taken by a spy satellite in geosynchronous orbit over the North Atlantic that confirmed the presence of an unknown object approximately 440 yards in length, plowing through the ocean on an apparent beeline for the Connecticut coast.
"Assessment?" the President's Chief of Staff opened the table for discussion.
"There is no known submersible or torpedo that can achieve that kind of speed over the distance we're talking," the NSA said, her voice full of conviction. "If this is an attack, it's not coming from the Russians, PRC, or North Koreans. No one else has a submarine program capable of even dreaming of developing a weapon platform of this nature."
"Is it nuclear?" the Chairman of the JCS inquired.
"Not as far as we can tell," the CNO replied. "Thermal scanning shows no radiation hotspots. In fact, it's essentially the same temperature as the surrounding water. Frankly, we have no idea what means of propulsion it's using."
"Then what in the name of Spam Hill is this sumbitch?" the President demanded. "Do we even know for sure that it's a weapon? Maybe it's, oh I don't know, some sort of mythical sea monster just out for a constitutional after a long nap."
The room chuckled over POTUS's legendary wit.
"We have to assume it's hostile," the SecDef's voice came over a speaker. "After all, it’s headed for Groton. It has all the earmarks of a preemptive strike."
"But why Groton? " the President asked. "Isn't that a prep school?"
"Different Groton, sir," SecDef answered patiently. "This is a submarine base in Connecticut."
"Why not a more strategic target like DC?" the Secretary of Homeland Security wondered.
"Textbook strategy," the Naval Chief volunteered. "After all, the Japanese first attacked Pearl Harbor to cripple the Pacific Fleet. The enemy must want to take out our Atlantic submarine forces. I can see no other explanation."
"Exactly what enemy are we talking about, Admiral?" the NSA demanded. "You said none of the usual suspects were capable of this kind of technology."
"It must be a new player. One we haven't encountered before," CNO responded evenly.
"From where?" DCI asked sardonically. "Atlantis? Are Prince Namor and his blue-skinned hordes ready to invade the surface world wearing fishbowl helmets?"
"Do we have any idea where this thing – do we have a code name for it by the way? – originated?" the Chief of Staff asked.
"Jormungand," the CNO replied.
"Jorgenwhat?" the President repeated. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Jormungand, sir," the CNO corrected gently. "It's the name of a legendary sea serpent. One of my people has a touch of whimsy and a Norwegian grandmother."
DCI held up a satellite photo. "And yes, we did follow its trail backwards. First appearance was here, around 1100 last night. Right in what the tabloids like to call the Bermuda Triangle."
"Guesswork don't feed no cattle, ladies and gentlemen," the President said. "Do we treat this as hostile or not?"
"Yes, sir," the CNO responded, no trace of doubt in his mind or voice.
"Anyone say different?" There were no dissenting opinions. The President stood up. "Then kill the bastard. That's all."
"Thank you, Mr. President." The Naval Chief picked up a secure phone. The clock read 0550. By 0555, the flight deck of the Enterprise began prepping five Super Hornet FA-18E's, each armed with six AGM-65S Maverick Air-to-Sub missiles, for take-off. Concurrently, personnel aboard the cruisers Gettysburg and Philippine Sea each plotted a firing solution for two Vertical Launch ASROC (VLA) missiles and sent them on their way. The VLA is a 16 foot long, 1400 pound, three stage, surface launched, anti-submarine rocket loaded with 98 pounds of a high explosive substance that makes C-4 look like bubblewrap. Price tag: $350,000 each. That's either a lot of bang for the buck, or a lot of bucks for a bang.
"If the right don't get him, then the left one will," Admiral Weisman commented grimly.
The VLAs hit Jormungand at 0613 and the aftershocks and spume churned up by the explosions made accurate readings impossible for the next few minutes, minutes which were spent breathlessly waiting for news.
"No joy on the VLAs. Repeat, no joy," Hawkeye One reported. "Jormungand remains on previous heading, no appreciable loss of speed."
Zefirelli grimaced and gave the order, "Launch the Hornets."
At the same time Zefirelli's order sent nearly 200 tons of heavily armed supersonic death-dealers after Jormungand, a runner handed Weisman a sheet of paper. It read "US Weather Service reports ten to twelve-foot swells hitting North Carolina beaches and barrier islands." Weisman took in the latest news with shock bordering on awe. "Do we think this is related to Jormungand?"
Lt. (j.g.) Zophia Rendahl looked up from her console and said, "It appears so sir, the wave fronts are moving north at the same speed as Jormungand. Any other explanation would be too much of a coincidence. And to make matters worse, this phenomenon is probably going to worsen as Big Bad out there gets closer to shore."
Weisman bit down on his lower lip. "All right, notify FEMA. They're going to have their hands full."
At 0622, the warplanes intercepted the target. The flight leader, callsign Mongoose, ordered his wing to take position directly in the contact's path and fire their Mavericks. The missiles were set to detonate once they reached preset depths and twenty-five out of thirty did indeed hit the target.
"Did we kill it, Hawkeye One?" Weisman shouted into his microphone.
"Negative, sir. No kill. Target continues speed and heading. But –"
"Spit it out, son!"
"Its size has been reduced by estimated 30%."
"You're saying we blew up a third of this thing and it's still going?" the Admiral demanded. "That's not possible."
"I calls 'em as I sees 'em, sir," Hawkeye One responded.
"Enterprise, let's try that play again," Weisman ordered, then turned to Rendahl. "Tell PAX to begin deploying mines."
At 0627, the Naval Air Wing out of Patuxent River, MD, set off to lay twenty MK60 Captor mines in a string along Jormungand's route in the channel between Montauk Point and Block Island. Three of the nigh unsinkable Motor Life Boats (MLBs) were dispatched from the Coast Guard Station in Montauk to warn all civilian craft out of the area.
FEMA sent word out to all civilian authorities on the Emergency Broadcast Network at 0645. Severe weather warning, it euphemized. Small craft advisory. Evacuate all beaches and low-lying coastal areas from Newport News, VA, to Newport, RI. Prepare for the worst.
The second wave of Super Hornets fired their missiles at Jormungand just as the target reached a point east of Trenton, NJ. This time they fared much worse. Jormungand was nearer the surface, and many of the missiles guidance systems were knocked out by huge waves before they could submerge to the proper depth. The mines did their job much more efficiently. At 0821, Jormungand came within range of the first, which loosed its torpedo. The explosion was duly reported by the helicopter which had taken over surveillance from the Hawkeyes. Nineteen identical explosions followed in relatively rapid succession like a string of the world's largest firecrackers.
"Well?" Weisman screamed at the helo pilot at 0849 EDT.
"No joy on the mines, sir. Target now estimated 700 feet long, and speed down to 80 knots, but it's still moving. It's just below the surface now, sir. Exact same bearing."
"Towards Groton?" the Admiral demanded.
"Negative, sir. Jormungand is headed straight for the mouth of the Mystic River. Repeat, target heading straight for Mystic."