Ben Farthi’s POV
The CIA wasn’t ready for a large operation, but Lazard Courtois and I talked them into this. The contract we had with his company for diving support operations was still in effect, as it didn’t specify Charlotte’s services. His gear had arrived with us on a military transport and was now being loaded into the fishing dhow that was going to take us north.
Our first operation up there had a ninety-foot trawler with top-of-the-line engines and a high-tech spy room. Our second a beat-up oil platform service vessel less than half of that length with a cramped cabin with four bunks. Now? I stepped into our new ride. We were going out on a twenty-five-foot wooden fishing boat with a canvas rain cover and canvas cots.
There were only two of us this time. Langley didn’t want to risk me, but they owed it to me and to Lazard to give us the chance to recover their bodies. The other part was the minisub; not only did it belong to Lazard, but its computer carried a copy of the data on its last dive, including the video. We couldn’t leave it behind for the Iranians to find.
“Ready, Ben?” I nodded and stepped down from the dock into the fishing boat. The boat had been purchased by the CIA and stripped for our use. The fishing nets on the aft end were just for show, the tarp underneath covered up our diving gear. We had a hand-held radio that would allow us to communicate with the USS Chosin, which was stationed in the northern Gulf with instructions to come to our aid if required. Other than that, we were on our own.
As we motored north toward Bushehr, we went over the plan. We only had one shot at this, and we only had one set of tanks. It took us the entire day to work up the Gulf until we were upwind of the target location. It was common for fishing vessels to set out nets and drift with the wind and current, so that was our plan. We would drift into Iranian waters, depending on the dhow not raising suspicions, and make one dive on the target location before motoring back out.
The CIA briefing before we left wasn’t good. The search had been called off for survivors from both countries, and accusations and denials were flying in the press and through neutral diplomats. US warships who came within twenty miles of the coast were being harassed by Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats, and the mullahs were threatening to “sink American vessels and close the Straits of Hormuz” to oil traffic. The carrier battle group in the southern Gulf was on alert, and the Pentagon was sending a second group in a week.
The only good thing was that all attention was on the warships, not fishing boats.
We alternated at the helm on the way north. Lazard’s heritage plus time outdoors allowed him to pass at a glance for Persian heritage such as mine, and with both of us in native garb no one gave us a second glance. We made it to the target area just before sundown and started drifting downwind towards our dive area. When it was completely dark, we moved the nets out of the way and started to prep his diving gear.
There wasn’t as much as before, since we weren’t staging miles away from the site. He opened the waterproof bags and removed the normal deep diving gear. Triple tanks filled with trimix for depth, the suit, the dive computer, weight belt, density compensator, regulator, mask, fins and snorkel. It was just like the gear Charlotte had brought, just bigger. He also had a net gear bag, containing a couple of buoyancy bags, a five-hundred-foot synthetic rope, and a half-dozen infrared glowsticks. The glowsticks were a new thing; they would show in the night-vision goggles I had, so if anything floated up to the surface it would get my attention. He didn’t have to tell me it might be a rope attached to his daughter’s body.
He was fully dressed as we made the final approach. “You don’t have to do this, you know,” I said. “Diving alone at that depth is not a wise thing, you can still pull out. We can do this without you being involved.”
“Do you know the difference between involvement and commitment, Ben?” He was pulling his fins on.
“I think so.”
“It’s a bacon and eggs breakfast. The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.” I couldn’t help but laugh. “My daughter’s down there, and we’re well inside Iranian waters. We’re both committed. Just be here when I come back up.”
“I’ll be ready for you,” I told him. “Good hunting.”
“Thank you.” I broke the glowstick attached to the top of his dive hood and made sure my night vision could pick it up. They would last for two hours, and the dive only had air for an hour. I quickly broke the remaining glowsticks in his bag as he pulled on his diving gloves.
I used the handheld navigator to position us exactly on the position of the entrance, then gave Lazard the signal. Over the side he went with a splash, and I kept drifting for ten minutes until I was sure he wasn’t coming back up.
I’d had worse conditions to dive under in my life, but none had the hazards of this job. The funny thing was that I didn’t fear dying.
My Charlotte was gone, there was little to live for. I kept looking for her to my right as I sank through the depths, but she wasn’t there. She would never be there. The search had been called off, and the best I could hope for was to find her at the bottom on this dive.
I followed the dive plan, stopping to equalize at the prescribed depths and times, and soon reached the bottom. After adjusting my compensator to neutral buoyancy, I checked my dive computer again. The high-powered lights on my helmet and suit helped, but I pulled out the spotlight from my equipment bag and turned it on. Staying just above the bottom so I wouldn’t stir up silt, I turned around to orient myself.
A flash of light caught my eye. Checking my compass, it was at 130 degrees.
Swimming towards it slowly, it came into focus and I couldn’t believe my luck. It was the remote piloted submarine.
I swam over, it was upright and relatively undamaged as I circled it. The cable was still attached, and I picked it up and followed it back to where it was stuck under a rock formation. It took a minute or two to work it free, then I followed it back to the sub. The master switch was off, and I took it to ON and it powered right up. I attached a pair of infrared glowsticks, one on each corner, then closed the ballast tank vents and blew high-pressure air into them. It rose quickly for the surface as I backed away; the last thing I needed was to get caught in the cable.
I was close. There had been footprints in the muck back where the cable had been stuck; large and small, James and Charlotte. I had twenty minutes of bottom time left, and I was going to use it. I swam back to the rock outcropping and tied the end of the rope to the high point. Letting out twenty feet, I started to swim in a circle. Every time I was heading east again, I let out another twenty feet of rope.
I had completed five sweeps when my dive alarm sounded, my bottom time was up.
I let another twenty feet out, I wasn’t going to give up yet. I’d use my reserve air too.
There was a rise in the seafloor as I got farther away, in the direction I had been told the entrance had been found. I found no bodies, no angels, no entrance and I had no air reserve. Adjusting my compensator, I started up. I focused on my dive computer, making the required stops for the required time. When I broke the surface, I could see the dhow about fifty yards away. I spit out the regulator and put the snorkel in, then started to swim over.
The sub was floating about twenty feet astern of the fishing boat, attached by the cable and a backup line to a pair of cleats on the stern. Ben was standing there waiting for me, he must have seen the light as soon as I surfaced. I took off my fins, passing them up, followed by my tanks. When I’d handed over the rest of the gear, I grabbed the rail and he pulled me into the boat. “We gotta bounce, yo,” I said to him as he collapsed on the deck. I went to the wheel, putting the engines at slow ahead and turning to the west.
“Don’t go too fast with the sub behind us,” he warned.
“Five knots,” I replied as I set the engines. “We’ve got five hours to sunrise, plenty of time.”
I didn’t say anything as we headed out, I didn’t have to. If he had found bodies, we would have retrieved bodies. I gave him some privacy as he stripped out of his wetsuit and stored the diving gear under the nets again.
All I could hear was the engines, the waves and his sobbing.
I looked down at my navigation handheld, we had crossed the territorial waters line. “We’re outside Iranian waters now,” I said loudly, so he could hear me without me turning.
“Good.” I heard him shuffle to his feet, then he walked forward to me. He had taken his trunks off and was back in fishing clothes. A towel around his shoulders and his messed-up hair was the only indication he had been diving.
“We’ll radio the Chosin in an hour or so, when we’re well clear of their waters,” I said. “I don’t want to give them any hint of suspicious activity here.”
“I’m fine with that.”
“You want to talk about it?”
He sat on a bench by me. “I found nothing of theirs down there, but they HAD been there. The minisub had been shut down manually, and the ballast vents were open. There was a few hundred feet of cable that was stuck under a rock formation. They tried to free it, both of their footprints were visible in the mud and silt, but it wasn’t freed.”
“But you got it free, did you cut it?”
“It just took a minute. They were interrupted, that’s the only explanation. They must have decided they couldn’t raise the submarine so they shut it down and left it there.”
“They might have heard the patrol boats coming,” I said. “The rally point was two miles west, but that was where the helicopter crashed.”
He let out a sigh. “It doesn’t matter, I searched the whole area and they aren’t there. You know what else isn’t there?” I shook my head no. “I didn’t see angels or an entrance to Eden. Nothing but muck and rock.”
“Are you sure you were over the right place?”
“I’m pretty sure, and I went deep into my air reserve to make sure. They’re gone. Their bodies are somewhere down there and likely will never be discovered, and I just have to deal with that.”
An hour later, I called the Chosin with a coded message that sounded innocuous but meant we had recovered the submarine and would meet at the planned recovery point. It was twenty minutes away when we got a call back from Captain Parks.
Speedboats were closing on us, and the US Navy was on the way to intercept.