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APRA HARBOR, GUAM
Eighteen time zones ahead of San Diego, it was 9 A.M. Saturday morning on the tiny western Pacific island of Guam when Mark Greenberg drove a borrowed jeep up to the main gate of the Apra Harbor Naval Base and flashed his ID at the civilian guard. Greenberg was a lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Navy. He had just come from the Guam Naval Facility, where his programming genius had been put to use for the last two weeks by the personnel in charge of SURTASS shore support operations.
On loan from San Diego, Greenberg had been looking forward to going home that weekend when new orders arrived. He was informed that the USNS Impeccable had berthed at Apra Harbor, and that when the ship headed back out of port later that morning, he would be going with it. Carrier assignment detail. That was all he’d been told.
The guard at the gate dutifully checked the lieutenant’s face against the one in the laminated photo in Greenberg’s wallet. He grinned, as though grateful for the distraction. Apra Harbor had once been a port for the Navy’s nuclear missile submarines. But when the U.S. nuclear arsenal was pulled back to the mainland, the base had assumed a more relaxed mood. Today the Marine detachments which had once roamed the waterfront were gone. There were, however, plenty of sailors in blue shirts and jeans, Greenberg saw. They worked the pier, ferrying fuel and supplies aboard a pair of ageing frigates. From the gate he could make out the hull number of one of the ships. It was FFG 34, the USS Aubrey Fitch. The lieutenant gestured at the two ships as he tucked his wallet back into his pocket. “They came in with the Impeccable?”
The guard raised the gate, glancing across to where the frigates were secured to the pier by heavy mooring lines. “Fitch came in yesterday afternoon. Jarrett this morning. You going out on one of ’em?”
“Not this time… Where can I leave the car?”
The guard noted the vehicle number and jotted it down. “There’s a yellow hatched area around to the left here.” He pointed. “Just leave the keys in it.”
Greenberg drove the jeep around to the parking area, stopped on the hatching, and switched off the engine. But before he could jump out he caught sight of someone jogging toward the car.
“Lieutenant Greenberg?” It was an enlisted woman, short blond hair, an engaging face — the girl next door type.
“Yes?” As Greenberg hopped from the jeep he grabbed his sea bag from the back seat.
The sailor saluted him. “Petty Officer Amy Ross, sir. I’ve been sent to escort you to the Impeccable.”
Ross. He saluted back to her and glanced at the rating badge worn on her upper left arm — a pair of headphones in the shape of a capital omega, with an arrow-shaped dial superimposed over them. “You’re the sonarman — woman, that I was meant to hook up with?”
“Sonarman third class. Yes, sir. Can I take your bag, sir?”
Greenberg shook his head. “No, you cannot.” How would that look, he thought, a woman carrying his bag? No, he’d carry his own bag, thanks all the same. “And if you don’t mind, we’ll drop the sir. Name’s Mark.” It was “Mac” to the half-dozen engineers on his design team back home at the Ocean Surveillance Laboratory, but that wasn’t where he was. Greenberg started moving toward the end of the pier. “Any idea what this is about?”
“No, but I could have done with the shore leave,” she said, allowing a touch of irritability to show. Well, the Navy didn’t expect to turn out automatons, did it? This one was definitely human. Pretty too, he might have allowed, if he hadn’t been married. “This came for you earlier.” She handed him a neatly folded telex.
He opened it and read. An Indonesian gunboat on patrol near the Natuna Islands had gone missing. The Chief of Naval Operations was considering diverting the Eisenhower task group to the area if the boat did not turn up in the next few days. That meant the carrier group would be diverted, because patrol boats did not get lost. If the gunboat had suffered some kind of mechanical failure the skipper would have radioed back to base for assistance. If no one had heard from him it was because someone else had interfered with his boat. Sunk it, most likely.
“Can I ask if we’ll be out long, sir — Mark?”
Greenberg pocketed the message. “Long enough. Seems the Indonesian Navy’s lost a patrol boat in the South China Sea. We’ll be tagging along with the Eisenhower group while it goes in and checks the area out.”
“Oh.” Petty Officer Ross sounded disheartened. A round-trip journey to the South China Sea meant they would be out for at least two weeks. Greenberg didn’t say it, but he wasn’t too thrilled either.
They walked in silence along the pier, dodging the sailors and forklifts, and passing between the two gray hulks he’d seen from the gate. The USS Aubrey Fitch and the USS Jarrett were easily distinguished as Oliver Hazard Perry class guided missile frigates. The telltale features were the low flat after decks — the helipads for each ship’s anti-submarine warfare helicopter — and the forward missile launcher. Greenberg had once spent three months on a Perry class ship while working as an SQR-19 towed array sonar technician. But he preferred working back in the lab. Writing software — on shore.
“Ever been out on a T-AGOS before, sir?” Ross was having difficulty breaking with the formality of rank, but Greenberg let it go.
“Once or twice. But not on one of the new ones.”
The Impeccable was T-AGOS 23, the twenty-third in the series of Ocean Surveillance Ships, but the first built specifically to carry the Navy’s new Low Frequency Active sonar array.
“You’ll like it,” Ross said. “Not much different from the Victorious class, of course, but light-years up from the fishing-trawler design they started out with. Can I ask what sort of work — ”
“Tweaking the software for the TB-29 follow on. That kind of thing.”
“Ah…” Ross said falling quiet. The TB-29 was the passive sonar “thin line” towed array which the Navy used on its newest attack submarines. In this instance, “follow on” translated to classified, and “that kind of thing” meant don’t ask.
“I’m on the SPAWAR payroll,” he volunteered. “San Diego.” Greenberg, in fact, was attached to D71, the Maritime Surveillance Division at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, San Diego.
The lieutenant lugged his bag past the bow of the Jarrett and continued on down to the end of the pier with Ross in tow. When they reached the mooring for the USNS Impeccable he stopped and set the bag down by the gangway. Sailors shuffled back and forth with supplies while he studied the ship. Although painted Navy gray, the Impeccable was a non-combatant vessel whose operation fell to Military Sealift Command — as was indicated by the blue and gold bands around the ship’s smoke stacks. The new T-AGOS ships were unusual in that they were built on not one, but a pair of hulls, both of which pinched down to knife-edges at the water surface. On top of these, joining the two hulls above the water, sat a low superstructure which granted the Impeccable something of the appearance of a gigantic twin-bladed ice skate. Below the waterline, Greenberg knew, each of the tapered hulls secured to propeller shafts that looked like ship-length battery-powered torpedoes — which was basically what they were.
Although the Impeccable was staffed by a mostly civilian crew, its primary purpose was to conduct submarine-hunting patrols for the Navy. These were carried out using two large arrays of hydrophones which were towed by the ship. One array generated sonar signals to bounce off the hulls of enemy submarines, while the other listened for the returning echoes. For the low speeds at which the towed arrays were deployed, the twin-hulls improved ship handling and reduced the noise contamination introduced to the hydrophones from the ship/water interface. This listening technology, known as the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System, made the Impeccable a SURTASS vessel. If there were any Chinese subs lurking in the shallows of the South China Sea, it would be Greenberg’s job to make sure the Eisenhower and her escorts knew about them.
“We’re due out again within the hour,” Ross told him. “If you’ll follow me, sir, we’ll get you stowed away.” She stepped onto the gangway and started up to the ship.
Lieutenant Greenberg hoisted his sea bag over his shoulder with one hand and grabbed the gangway rail with the other. Two weeks, he thought with a grimace. Marvelous.
Ninety minutes later, Greenberg was standing fore of the bridge, as the USNS Impeccable sliced its way through the glassy harbor entrance at a steady twelve knots. The captain of the ship stood at the lieutenant’s side. His name was Arthur Harris, and he leaned forward against the handrails to steady the heavy binoculars in his hands. Three nautical miles ahead of them was the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, CVN 69. Further out were her surface escorts — the destroyers Paul Hamilton and Fletcher, the guided missile frigate Gary, and an underway fuel replenishment ship, the USNS Yukon. Harris had been trying to identify the ships by visual inspection. In addition to the escorts he could see, a Los Angeles class nuclear attack submarine — the USS Columbia — stood sentry somewhere beneath the waves to the west of Guam.
“Anything I should know about?” Harris asked.
While the captain and his civilian crew were responsible for the logistics of steering the Impeccable, tending to its diesel-electric propulsion system, and seeing to the careful deployment and retrieval of the towed hydrophone arrays, they did not always know the reason behind the orders handed them. This was something which came down through the SPAWAR chain of command, in this case to Lieutenant Greenberg who would be acting as chief of the sonar watch, and effective commanding officer of T-AGOS 23. Where it concerned questions on the collection of sonar intelligence, Captain Harris would defer to him.
“We might be looking for a sub,” Greenberg told the captain. He related the news of the Indonesian patrol boat which had gone missing. The lieutenant had also received a second dispatch since arriving on board. “Their Navy thinks the Chinese have a boat off Natuna, so the Indo President says he would be obliged if we took a look-see for them.”
Harris, who had known only that they were headed to the South China Sea, lowered the eye glasses. “We’re going all the way in?”
Greenberg shook his head. But he understood the captain’s concern. The Natuna Islands — there was actually more than one of them, the largest being Besar — were located in the shallow waters of a sea shelf that ran from the Gulf of Thailand out to Malaysia’s Sarawak. Average sea depth in the area was one hundred meters, too shallow to comfortably operate the blue water vessels of the U.S. Navy. The Eisenhower would confine her activities to the central reaches of the South China Sea, where depths in some places plunged to 3000 meters.
“Our job is just to show Beijing that we’re interested in what’s going on down there. If we spot one of their boats on its way back to base, even better. Makes it harder for them to deny they had a hand in the sinking of our friends.”
“Friends?” Harris said skeptically. “Since when were we so cozy with the Republic of Indonesia?”
Greenberg shrugged his shoulders. “Customer relations, I guess. Taipei isn’t the only player in the region willing to buy F-16s from us. If Coleman’s running to form, what’s the bet Jakarta isn’t next in line for an order?”
This was pure speculation on Greenberg’s part. Yet, if he could not say why the convoy was being diverted, the reason for the Impeccable’s attachment to it required little in the way of guesswork. The South China Sea represented one of the few bodies of sea water in the world still safe from the prying electronic ears of SOSUS, the U.S. Navy’s sound surveillance network of sea-based hydrophone arrays. Designed to detect noisy Russian submarines at long-range, the western Pacific segment of the network had been installed along the seafloor to the east of the Philippines. Since the South China Sea lay directly to the west of the islands, it remained acoustically shielded. It would be the Impeccable’s job to establish mobile surveillance of the area for the time that the Eisenhower and her escorts passed through. This she would do by deploying her passive towed sonar array. If the People’s Liberation Army Navy had made the mistake of stationing one or more of their old Han class attack subs in the area, then there was an excellent chance that the Impeccable would detect them.
As the T-AGOS vessel departed the harbor, Greenberg wondered about its ability to keep up with the convoy. The earlier T-AGOS ships had been capable of sixteen knots — four knots faster than the speed they were traveling now. But the Impeccable was a bigger boat. He asked Harris about its top speed.
“We’re doing it.” The captain gestured to the ships ahead of them. “To keep up with these guys we’ll be getting an assist. The Yukon’s traveling light — so she’ll be able to drop us a tow line for the journey in. With a little care we should be able to handle twenty knots. Enough to put us where you want to go in just over six days.” Harris gave him a quizzical squint. “Why? You’re not in a hurry are you, Mr. Greenberg?”
“No,” the lieutenant said, bending the truth as he thought about what waited for him back home. “…No hurry, Captain.”
After a tense taxi ride from Union Station — the train had come in on time, but rarely did one escape completely the effects of Los Angeles freeway traffic — Kirby had arrived at LAX to find Rosen sipping scotch in the Swissair terminal while he looked over his speech for Sunday.
Now the two of them were somewhere over the North Atlantic ocean in complete darkness. Rosen was slumped down on his seat fast asleep, but Kirby felt wide awake. According to his watch — still running on San Diego time — it was only 11:15 P.M. Friday night. He didn’t normally fall asleep until midnight, and being in the air only made it that much harder to relax. To distract his mind from the unsettling thought that he was hurtling along ten kilometers above a pitch black ocean in a long metal cylinder, he had brought along The Prophet. It was a volume of mystical pronouncements written by the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran in 1923. It was more for luck than anything else; the book was rumored to have been in the possession of two separate Nobel-winning biologists at the time they did their most important work. Kirby had found a copy in a second-hand bookstore, but so far he hadn’t had the time to even glance at it.
With his view of the world based on a strict diet of scientific training, Kirby found it easy to dismiss the more mystical side of Gibran’s writings. He trusted his own senses first and the accounts of others second. Still, some of Gibran’s passages made an impression on him. Apparently they’d had a similar effect on the previous owner of the book, who had taken a high-lighter to almost every page. As he tried to forget where he was, Kirby’s eyes fell on one of the passages marked in orange: “It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding; and to the open-handed the search for one who shall receive is joy greater than giving.”
He looked inside the cover for the name of the previous owner. But it had been scratched out. Probably some New Age mystic, Kirby thought closing the book. He glanced across at Rosen, whose silver hair reflected the overhead lighting in the window beside him. Kirby wondered if guys like Rosen ever took the time to read the writings of guys like Gibran.
He wasn’t sure. But it didn’t seem likely.