I went into the water wondering if she was as capable as her background indicated and came back up shaking my head. I’d underestimated her. She was at home in the water, smooth and powerful in her swimming. She was mentally tough, calm and disciplined, the way you had to be to survive combat dives. I had no problem working for her, because I trusted her already.
We stowed our equipment and I snuck glances at her as I cleaned up. Her body was a dream; curvy, muscled and graceful. I could feel her eyes on me as I pushed my wetsuit down and off. I was confident in my attractiveness to women, I was just hoping I wasn’t mistaking the signs she was giving me. She had been very clear about her expectations during this mission, but I was already planning for what would happen when the mission was over. If I had my way, it would involve the two of us at a seaside resort for a few weeks with a notable lack of clothing.
I waited for her to rinse off and go below decks before I used the shower. Doffing my trunks, thankful I had a few minutes to rid myself of an embarrassing swelling, I quickly towel dried and pulled on fresh clothes I had laid out earlier. I made my way forward, where Mark handed me a plate with a big sandwich and a bottle of water. “Thanks, Mark,” I said as I sat down to eat. Diving always built up my appetite, and we were going to be up for a while.
“No problem. The dive went well?”
“It was great. Thanks for finding me a capable salvage diver to work with.”
He grinned. “Work for, she’s made it very clear who’s in charge.”
I nodded. “Until this mission is over, yes.”
He looked towards the hatchway, making sure she was still below decks. “It’s going to be a long and hard week for you, isn’t it? Just stay professional, we have a job to do.” I nodded and took another bite. “If it helps, she’s looking at you like she can’t wait to get a piece.”
“It does.” She came back up, wearing khaki shorts and a T-shirt with her hair tied back in a ponytail. “What’s next, boss?”
“Food.” Mark went back into the pilothouse and got her food, and she sat next to me and dug in. Ben came out with him. “All right, before we go to bed, we need to do a shakedown run of the remotely piloted submarine,” she said between bites. “We need to launch it, give James some practice with piloting, and verify the auto-return feature is working. Mark, James and Ben will start on launch and retrieval. We’ll put it in the water, run it around for a few minutes, then pick it up. I need both of you to be comfortable with the hook and winch, so you’ll alternate. James will go first, then he will go into the pilothouse with me, where I’ll be teaching him how to run it. Watch one, do one is how I do things. After you are comfortable with launch and release, we’ll make a few dives to the bottom.”
“Sounds good,” I said as I set my plate aside. “What do you need help with?”
“You’re all going to learn all the jobs, so we can work shifts or fill in if someone isn’t available. Go take the tarps off the submarine and the reel, and make sure the davit arm is rigged with a 2-inch hook and the winch is working.” We went off to prep while she finished her sandwich.
She brought the case out next to the minisub and plugged the fiber optics from the cable reel in, then turned everything on. The controls were built into a large case with a top that folded up, holding a large screen split to show the two high-mount forward, single aft and single bottom-mount cameras. “The system has a hover mode which is pretty slick,” she said. “The two high and one bottom-mount camera can be programmed to track an object and maintain station. The computer triangulates to track the object and adjusts the thrusters automatically to stay in place.”
“Even in a current?” I was shocked, even in a dive you had to work your body to stay in place when the tide was moving things around, or deep ocean currents were in place.
“Especially in a current. It’s far more stable and accurate than a pilot could be, and it frees the pilot up to concentrate on the arms.” The sub drive system was powered up, she used the control system to check all the controls. The minisub was about eight feet long, had a large battery bank for the drive systems, and reversible main thrusters for forward/aft plus a set up front for turning. Fins front and back could tilt thirty degrees up or down, allowing for vertical motion. The computer automatically adjusted the ballast tanks to maintain neutral buoyancy based on water depth and maintained trim so it would stay horizontal.
Once the drive system had been checked, she demonstrated the arms. The controls for that used grips on the forearms, wrist, thumb and forefinger to control the arm and the pincher at the end. “One of the toughest things to control is the amount of force the fingers have, at least until I designed this control with an active feedback system. It pushes back against you as the pressure on the object increases, giving you more control like your fingers were squeezing it. Here, try it.” She helped me put my arms in, then used the bolt, holding it a foot in front of the arms. I moved until I as gripping it in two places; it was an intuitive system, and easy to use.
I was impressed. Her gear was cutting-edge, and she was far more than just a pretty face.
Once we had it all tested out, we practiced lifting it off the deck and into the water, then picking it up again. We did that a half-dozen times, rotating between the hook and the winch, before we started the test dives. Charlotte moved the equipment into the pilothouse, and over the next two hours I watched her operate, then she trained me. When I had found and retrieved the same four objects we had practiced on in our dive, she decided it was enough for the night. “We’re going to shut down the console and let the minisub return to its failsafe position,” she said. “On loss of communications, it comes to the surface and uses an onboard GPS receiver to figure out where it is, then it drives itself back. When you’re doing tethered ops, this can be a big deal.”
I followed her directions, powering down the controls then disconnecting the fiber optic. “What if the cable gets snagged?”
“If we have control, we can tell the sub to release the cable. If not, it can tell if it is restricted from movement, and takes programmed maneuvers to try and release itself. If it can’t, it releases the cable and returns to failsafe. I’ve done everything I can think of to get this thing back.”
“How much do you have into it,” I asked.
“Over a million,” she said. “I don’t want to lose it.”
We watched with night vision glasses as the minisub surfaced about three hundred yards from us. It turned and powered its way towards the program position. We reeled in the cable, and I got the hook on first try. It was secured back on deck, plugged in to recharge and covered with a tarp by two in the morning. “That’s it for tonight,” she told us. “Ben, what’s the plan?”
“We’re going to work our way across the Gulf starting about four tomorrow afternoon. I want to get the sub in the water and checking the first potential location within an hour after dark,” he said. “Get some sleep. Mark, you take the watch at six. James, Charlotte, get some sleep.”
I followed her down into the small berthing area we had. “You want the bathroom first,” I offered.
She smiled at me and walked to her bunk, carrying a change of clothes and her toothbrush. I got the air conditioner going and stowed my clothes in my locker. I could hear the shower turning on and off through the thin metal door that separated us; limited water meant Navy showers. You got wet, washed up and rinsed, all with about fifteen seconds of water each. I was standing waiting for her when she came out in a loose T-shirt and cotton shorts over flip flops.
My jaw dropped and I got nervous; it was getting more difficult by the hour to not just pull her into my chest and kiss her until she agreed to be mine.
She moved past me, the contact sending a thrill through me as I went into the bathroom. The water was warm, the Gulf waters were pushing ninety degrees and the tank was not insulated.
It did nothing to relieve the swelling.
She was on her side in the narrow bed, she had taken the top one on the port side and I have picked the one below her. I was pulling my sheet back when I noticed she was looking at me. “Thanks for today, Charlotte,” I told her. “I’m really looking forward to this.”
“I’m nervous,” she said. “I’ve never had to work in a place where I was in personal danger. Being so close to Iran, being a woman out here on the water, I don’t know what I was thinking. I should have known when they paid the rate that this was far more than just a normal mission.”
“I’m not going to blow sunshine up your ass and tell you everything is perfectly safe,” I said as I looked into her eyes. “Nothing in this area is safe; there are still pirates, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is a wildcard, and we’re operating at the edge of their waters. The good news is that we’re operating at night and the sub is difficult to detect. We’ll be careful and stay out of trouble.”
“But something could go wrong.”
“True. You’re here because my partner was killed on a dive; this is a dangerous job in a dangerous place. I’m here for you, though. I’ll back you up as more than just a diver. I’ll do everything I can to keep you safe.”
She reached out her hand for mine; I took it, squeezing it a little as a tear came to her eye. “Promise me something, James.”
“Anything you want, Charlotte, if I can give it to you it is yours.”
“Don’t let me be captured alive.”
I looked at her, staring into her beautiful eyes. “If there is no other way, you get the second to last bullet,” I told her. “Now get some sleep, Charlotte. We have a long night ahead of us.” I tucked her hand back in by her side, then rolled into the bunk.
Normally I was able to sleep within seconds of hitting the pillow, but Mark walked in and moved into the shower. He came back in ten minutes later, took the bunk and was immediately asleep. I was staring at the bunk above me, wondering what she was doing. A soft voice asked, “James, are you awake?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Can’t sleep?”
“Too wound up,” she said.
“What do you do to sleep back home?”
She paused. “Momma used to sing to me. Daddy tries, but he’s not as good.”
I tried to think of a song. I wasn’t a good singer, so I picked up one I could carry. “There is a house down in New Orleans. They call the rising sun. And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy, And God, I know I’m one.”
She picked up the next verse, her voice soft and haunting. “My mother was a tailor, she sewed these new blue jeans. My father was a gamblin’ man, down in New Orleans.”
I joined her in harmony for the next verse, my deeper voice marrying well with her sweet one. “Now the only thing a gambler need, Is a suitcase and a trunk. And only time he’s satisfied, is when he’s on a drug.”
She dropped off after the song, and I went into Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. She was sleeping by the time I was done, her breathing evening out. “Goodnight, Charlotte,” I said softly.