|Deep under the Arctic Ocean, America’s largest and most deadly secret lay silent. The Hartford, an American fast attack submarine, cruised four hundred feet under the ice. Running at two knots she was so slow that even a tadpole could outrun her.
The engine room, running all its equipment at the slowest speeds possible, was radiating almost no sonar signature. Lieutenant Roderick, the Chief Engineer, had ordered the plant’s supervisor to artificially load the reactor. Hands-on training was required to qualify his engineers and this underway had so little time for it and with half of his qualified mechanics leaving within two months, he needed to get his new recruits through the program quickly.
Chief Weiss, the boat’s senior nuclear mechanic, was standing watch in the engine room’s upper level when that order was received over the engine room’s communication system.
“Chief, get the newbies up here, open the starboard steam dump and monitor condenser vacuum,” said Roderick.
Vacuum was extremely important to a shipboard engine room. It increased efficiency and prevented steam from condensing in the main engines, which were nothing more than steam turbines coupled to a shaft. The order to dump steam was to be carried out by bypassing steam around the engines. If too much steam were allowed to bypass into the condenser the excessive pressure would blow the condenser boots apart. Steam would enter the engine room and suffocate everyone on watch.
“L.T., getting one out of thirty practical factors done isn’t going to help. We need some drill time,” said Weiss. The boat wasn’t supposed to go this slow and dump steam at the same time. Without the seawater pumps running faster they could barely crack the dumps. He knew the situation with the qualifications. He also knew rushing them through wouldn’t give them the level of knowledge needed to pass the navy’s rigorous Operational Reactor Safeguards Exam, or ORSE.
“I know chief. Nothing I can do about that though. I’m pushing it just getting the bypass open. We’ll deal with ORSE when we get back,” said Roderick. Unfortunately the captain’s orders were set in stone. There was no such thing as a democracy in the military. Commander Ramsey, as ship’s captain, was emperor while at sea. His orders were to keep the ship moving at two knots as quietly as possible.
Weiss really couldn’t do anything about it. Being the most junior chief in the goat locker didn’t give him a lot of influence. All he could do was grin and bear the fact that when half his qualified mechanics transferred he was going to be screwing over the remaining half until he could qualify the new guys. All he could muster up was a mumbled “Yes sir.”
The torpedo room wasn’t as busy as it usually was. The crew typically used that room to line up for chow but the captain curbed that even before the submarine left homeport. Also odd, no crewmembers were allowed to bunk in the room. Most of the crew to had to hot rack. Hot racking, considered disgusting to most, was common among submariners. It consisted of three men sharing two bunks. One of the three was always on watch allowing the other two spaces to sleep.
Seaman Thomas, the torpedo room watch, couldn’t help but wonder why his logbook was classified top secret. All they were carrying was a cruise missile and a couple torpedoes. Never before had he been tasked to deal with anything classified. His supervisor, Petty Officer Getty, was standing watch with him. Wanting to break the ice Thomas decided to ask Getty what he thought.
“So what’s with the top secret mumbo-jumbo man?” said Thomas.
Getty, a sailor for fifteen years, had also never seen the torpedo room logbook classified. He also couldn’t figure out why so much space was being wasted. They could have easily fit nine more beds on the boat and no one would have had to hot rack this underway.
“Beats me,” said Getty. Years of navy brainwashing had taught him to keep his mouth shut.
“You think maybe the navy’s worried about the terrorists finding out how much we waste paper?” said Thomas.
Getty couldn’t help it. He laughed so loud that he swore the rest of the boat heard him. The navy had always said that they were going to become “paperless.” In doing so, however, the navy actually increased its paper use.
“You shut up before you get me in trouble,” said Getty. He looked up at the clock and, noticing he still had four hours of watch left, said, “I can tell this is going to be a long watch,”
Lieutenant Thames stood outside the wardroom. The captain had wanted to see him after his watch. Two years as Ramsey’s executive officer had shown to be constructive. Perhaps now, after that black mark from his first ship, the navy would finally promote him. It took three months for the jury to find him innocent of sexual harassment. He swore it felt like years. Thames knew advancement was more political than even a presidential election. That specific mark would influence practically everyone who would evaluate him, probably for his entire career.
He really had caught a break with Ramsey. For the first time he was serving under a captain that wasn’t political. Ramsey had evaluated his performance based on just that, performance. That gold oak leaf was looking promising. With that he just might be able to pull off getting a command of his own.
Thames was about to enter when Master Chief Julian, the Chief of the Boat, opened the door and stood aside to let Thames in. Julian sure wasn’t happy either. His usual cheerful smile was missing on his face. Instead, a sweaty, grim mug greeted Thames. Julian hated briefings. Whenever he was pulled into one it meant something was either bad or soon going to be.
“Captain’s been waiting for ya L.T.” said Julian. As Chief of the Boat he was responsible for every enlisted man. One of the perks of being COB was being in the loop when it came to ship’s orders. Sometimes that was a good thing.
“Thanks COB,” said Thames. Walking in he noticed no one else in the room. Even the cook’s door was closed and locked. Thames couldn’t help feeling that something just wasn’t right.
“Two more hours XO, not much more time until we can go home,” said Ramsey as he motioned for his XO to take a seat.
Ramsey’s first time in command had a rocky start. The Hartford had run into an underwater mountain just one week after he took over. After being stuck in Virginia’s dry docks for three months and nine million dollars of repair the small boat left to commence their scheduled ORSE.
Even with his superior’s obvious disappointment Ramsey had stood tall, hoping soon the dark cloud would disappear from overhead. When he heard talk of replacement Ramsey became determined to show just what he was capable of trained his crew non-stop for weeks before the examination team came aboard. The crew had given a name to these never-ending drills: Vulcan death watches. Staying awake for days on end doing nothing but drilling became the norm. In the end it had paid off and they had aced the ORSE, becoming the first submarine to have zero recorded deficiencies. The fleet commander, impressed at the remarkable turnaround Ramsey had accomplished awarded the boat the coveted Battle E. Word of the boat’s accomplishment reached the pentagon and the name Hartford was written at the top of a short list. That list was exactly why the Hartford was slowly moving along under the thick ice.
The boat had been at sea for three weeks and, with no end in sight, rumors had circulated throughout the crew. As the mission's objective grew closer Ramsey figured it was the time to let Thames and Julian in on the secret.
Thames sat down next to Ramsey and began chewing on a Slim Jim. Thames was, in Ramsey's opinion, perfect for a submarine command. He cared more about the mission than himself. He never stumbled or cracked under pressure during practice drills. The only thing he couldn't figure out was why, after he had made so many positive performance evaluations, Thames was never promoted beyond Lieutenant.
"Captain, for the past two weeks I've sat here waiting for you to tell me just why the hell we're here," said Thames.
Ramsey, staring into nothing, looked up. "Sure XO, I guess it's time to let the cat out of the bag. The nuke we're hauling isn't for show. It's to be launched in one hour."
Both Julian and Thames’ jaws dropped. The cold, recycled air in the submarine suddenly felt even colder. A live nuclear warhead had not been launched since World War Two. Julian looked at his captain. He couldn’t imagine that a sane man would ever set off a nuke again. He tried to stand but couldn’t; his legs refused to respond.
Thames felt a chill move up his back and into his throat. "Captain?" The only word Thames could push through his abruptly swollen gullet.
"You heard right XO, we're to launch the nuke and transfer control to NORAD. Orders from the president himself are to launch and immediately return to port," said Ramsey.
"Sir, with all due respect we're about to start another cold war,” said Thames.
Julian was still gasping in the background. He had taken a post on a fast attack submarine to get away from the nukes. His first submarine had been a missile boat. Being around twenty-four huge nuclear monsters never sat well with him and the first chance he got he transferred to the smaller boats that only carried torpedoes and cruise missiles. What terrified him the most was one of those monsters was in his boat, right below where he slept, and he couldn’t do anything about it.
Thames’ words rang through Ramsey’s head. Nowhere in the brief was even the mention of the target. Ramsey had just assumed that it would be another test missile. One of those shows of power the president loved to do. Orders were orders though and he wasn't about to throw his career away just because he started to get questions about them. After all, these orders came straight from the president's mouth. How many ship captains could say that they received their orders directly from the president himself? He couldn't think of a single one.
“Nothing was said about a target XO. Our orders are to launch in the middle of the Arctic. We’re not starting nuclear war,” said Ramsey. He hoped it was accurate. Starting the next holocaust was not what he wanted to be written on his gravestone.
The small blip in the sonar screen was almost missed. Ensign Yao, the sonar officer, noticed it out of pure dumb luck.
“Jones, find out what that is,” said Yao, pointing to the blip on the screen.
Petty Officer Jones listened closely. It was hard to distinguish anything through the static. No screw noise. No pump noise. Nothing heard except for a faint mechanical sound. Jones couldn’t even make out the noise’s frequency.
Jones turned to talk to Yao. “Sir, I can’t be sure what that is. It’s mechanical for sure but the static is shielding the frequency.”
“Keep on it. Let me know when you get it,” said Yao. He needed to pass this on to control. No contacts for weeks and then all of a sudden a faint signal that can’t be identified. Something felt wrong.
“Control, Sonar: Unknown contact bearing zero, six, zero,” said Yao over the intercom.
The ship’s Navigator, Lieutenant Evans, was the officer in charge. He knew there was suppose to be no contacts whatsoever. The entire area had been swept before the Hartford entered and was constantly monitored by the boat’s sonar team. He was about to acknowledge sonar and contact the captain when sonar engaged the intercom once more.
“Control, Sonar: Contact identified. Kilo Class submarine snorkeling at zero, six, zero, zero knots.”
“Acknowledged Sonar,” replied Evans. A kilo was not good. The old soviet age diesel submarine was still one of the most feared and most quiet boats in the water. That boat would only be charging its batteries for another fifteen minutes at most. After that the diesel would be extremely hard to find. He didn’t have any other recourse. He had to act before contacting the captain.
“Battle Stations,” announced Evans.
The Diving Officer immediately hit the ship wide intercom and threw the alarm.
"Battle stations, battle stations, all hands man your battle stations,” announced the Diving Officer through the intercom.
Everywhere the main announcement system rang like a dreaded curse. Moments later the general alarm sounded. Lights came on throughout the berthing areas as tired sailors jumped from their racks and ran to their assigned stations. There were no drills scheduled this entire trip and the crew cursed the captain for starting now. Everyone, dazed from too much rest, stumbled down the corridors and into their own nook in the boat. Not one realized the broadcast included ‘This is not a drill.’
The stench of recycled farts slowly left as the kilo snorkeled. With the diesels running the small boat was able to pull in fresh air while charging the batteries.
"What is it?"
"Secure the diesels. Dive the ship."
Luck. It finally showed its pleasant face. An American submarine would make a highly desirable trophy. With the torpedo tubes already equalized all that had to be done was fire them. It took the crew of six three minutes to submerge.
“Set course one, two, zero. Rig for silent running. Bring us to within five hundred yards.”
With any luck the Americans didn’t hear them.
Ramsey came barreling into control with Thames and Julian right behind. Ramsey’s face showed annoyance. He had ordered no drills to keep his crew fully rested.
“Nav, report.” Ramsey was standing in the center of control waiting for Evans to turn the boat over to him.
"Captain, sonar confirmed a kilo snorkeling approximately two miles away and lost contact shortly after sir. Best guess is she’ll be under the ice within ten minutes,” replied Evans.
Ramsey, watching each of his officer’s reactions, could almost taste the fear they felt. Kilos were capable of infiltrating American battle groups and sinking aircraft carriers in almost every training scenario. That news graced every newspaper in the world and made every anti-American force want a kilo that much more. Tracking of submarine sales became almost impossible and many terrorist organizations were rumored to possess such arsenals. As expected the US government shot down any claim that al Queda had purchased a deadly kilo.
“Rig ship for reduced electrical. Slowly flood tubes one and two. Let’s see what we’re up against before we start a war,” ordered Ramsey.
Faint sounds of bubbles echoed in the kilo’s sonar. Bubbles were either a sign of torpedoes or an emergency blow. Five feet of ice overhead guaranteed it wasn’t a blow.
”The Americans are flooding tubes.”
Four torpedoes shot out of the kilo and immediately found their target. Unfortunately the kilo was not within five hundred yards. This gave the Americans enough time to maneuver away from their ambush.
Yao didn’t wait for Jones’ report. They drilled the sounds of torpedo engines into his head at submarine school. Torpedoes and depth charges were the two most deadly threats to a submarine. With each costing the American taxpayer billions each year the navy wanted to make sure they wouldn’t lose any of them.
“Control, Sonar: torpedoes in the water, torpedoes in the water!”
Ramsey heard Yao and immediately rang the engine room: Emergency Flank.
“XO, launch countermeasures,” ordered Ramsey.
With any luck the countermeasures would distract the incoming torpedoes and allow the Hartford to turn around and face their aggressor. Seaman Martin was manning the countermeasures. He had just transferred to the boat straight from school and hadn’t been fully trained how to perform the launch. As soon as the red button was pressed Martin was blown back into the door. Failing to fully shut the breech door caused both an immense burst of air and the countermeasure to launch into the submarine, effectively killing the first line of defense against attack..
The hum of the engine room’s pumps filled the air as they shifted to fast speed and the screw surged the boat forward. With their countermeasures offline evasive maneuvering was the only thing that was going to keep them alive now.
Four torpedoes were chasing them. Only one of them needed to find its mark to do serious damage. Ramsey’s mind was racing. The missile they were carrying was barely supposed to rip through the thick ice above them. There would surely be no way to get to the surface in an emergency. Flooding could end up killing them.
Weiss was running through the engine room. As supervisor he had to ensure every piece of equipment was ready for the reactor’s quick jump to flank speed. Just one pump failing to shift would cause catastrophic overheating, resulting in the automatic shut down of the reactor. Like a curse, the port seawater pump failed to shift and was stuck in slow speed. Weiss had to inform maneuvering, the boat’s reactor control room, rapidly to stop the flank order.
“Maneuvering, Engineering Watch Sup: Port seawater failed to shift. Attempting to shift again,” said Weiss.
The engineering officer rang up control to inform the captain. Ramsey didn’t care. Every life on that ship depended on outrunning those torpedoes.
“Maneuvering, get this ship to flank speed or we’re all dead. Reactor damage is the least of our worries right now,” replied Ramsey.
With the steam dump partially opened and the seawater pump not in fast speed vacuum in the port condenser started rising. With no way of effectively removing the enormous heat from the engine’s expelled steam soon the steam safety valve would shut off the steam to the engines.
Weiss anxiously tried to shift the pump again with no success. It would only take another minute before the safety would engage. Fear overwhelmed the entire engine room crew as they watched each failed attempt to bring the pump to fast speed.
Condenser vacuum reached atmospheric pressure before Weiss finally got the pump to shift. Vacuum shot straight back down. The engine room was pushing the boat as fast as it could.
”Full to port. Get this boat turning COB,” ordered Ramsey. With the boat finally responding to flank he could try his luck out maneuvering the incoming beasts. Angled as far as she would go, the Hartford started buckling. Bulkheads twisted under the severe torque. Pipes began to swell.
The first explosion shook the crew off their feet. Luckily, the second also detonated far enough away.
“Captain, first two missed. We’ve got two left,” said Thames. It took being dropped to the floor for Thames to get his head back.
“Full starboard. Five degree down bubble,” ordered Ramsey.
Julian acknowledged the order and within seconds the huge tube of steel started moving the opposite course.
The third torpedo detonated much closer than the first two. Shock waves threw off the engine’s electrical grid. The shaft in the main turbine shock so badly it caused the bearings to fail. The seawater pumps shifted back to slow speed. Now with both sides running in slow speed vacuum quickly dissipated. It took less than a minute for the safeties to shut off steam to the engines.
With the engines offline the fourth torpedo easily found it’s target, detonating two feet from the hull. Explosions tore through the ship as the icy ocean entered the engine room. Each explosion dumped seawater on the frantic, young sailors as they fought to patch the cracks. As the water level rose, electricity started to arc across the high voltage transformers.
Weiss ran to the emergency station only to find hydraulics was down. There was no way to shut the enormous seawater valves. He watched as electrical flashes jumped across circuit boards, shorting out each of the reactor’s control stations until the reactor shut itself down.
Soon the flooding was brought under control and the pumps were able to start bringing the water level below the deck plates. Sighs of relief could be heard throughout the engine room. They had fought for their lives and won.
Maneuvering proudly reported back to control that the flooding was brought under control.
“Keep listening Jones. They’re still out there somewhere,” Evans said.
Jones turned back to his supervisor. “Sir, I can’t hear anything through those damn drain pumps. They could be snorkeling again and I wouldn’t know it.”
For a couple minutes it seemed as if the ambush was over. Nothing, aside from the drain pumps, could be heard in the water. No new explosions were ripping the boat apart.
Bubbles. Just barely through the deafening pump noise Jones could hear bubbles. Bubbles that signified that kilo hadn’t left.
“Torpedo in the water!” Jones couldn’t miss the discharge of air as the kilo launched yet another of it’s deadly weapons. Images of his wife and daughter ran through his head. Sure that he was going to die Jones took off his headphones and knelt down to pray.
Yao knew those words now meant certain death. No propulsion. The drain pumps were barely keeping up with the water coming in now. There was no way the Hartford could handle even a kitchen fire.
Ramsey turned to what was now a hysterical executive officer. He could see the fear of death well up in Thames’ eyes. Another torpedo wasn’t going to destroy the ship, the influx of water was. Ramsey knew it. The entire crew knew it.
Shortly after the kilo launched it’s fifth and final torpedo the captain turned on the ship wide intercom. He wanted to let the crew know how much he appreciated their service, their lives.
“Hartford, we’ve fought the impossible. That kilo caught us off guard and all of you have done more than can ever be expected. This crew, my crew, is the best in the navy.”
The explosion of the fifth torpedo rippled through the boat, throwing everyone to the floor. Each shudder of a wave caused the cracks in the seawater piping to expand. Each break slowly pushed in more water for the already taxed pumps to drain out.
Thames was working on standing near the intercom when the engine room call came in. His already apparent panic compounded with a ghost white face.
“Captain, uncontrollable flooding in the engine room, we have to abandon ship before it’s too late,” exclaimed Thames, forgetting where they were.
Under the ice there was nowhere to abandon to. Ramsey knew there was nothing that he could do. He had already conceded that his brave crew was going to drown in this ice-cold water. His career passed before his eyes. Suddenly running aground seemed only trivial. Carrying orders straight from the president meant nothing. Spending his entire life in the military now seemed a waste.
Ramsey turned to face Thames. “Abandon to where?”
With one more explosion the Hartford’s torpedo tube doors failed. The rest of the boat filled with the freezing ocean, causing what buoyancy was left to give.