Authors: Greg Dinallo
“That’s how they work,” Andrew said with a grin. “Seriously,” he went on, “they’re experts at using the most innocent situation to make trouble.”
“The KGB?” she whispered.
Andrew nodded, and said, “Don’t whisper, it attracts attention.” His remark started him thinking about Raina Maiskaya, and he saw her blank eyes staring at him, staring right through him as the car whisked her away on that bleak night in Rome, and wondered if she’d been tortured and imprisoned, or if she was even still alive. The elevator door
opened and snapped him out of it. He leaned his head closer to Melanie’s as he followed her inside.
“Don’t ever forget where you are,” he warned.
The door rumbled closed, and he kissed her.
* * * * * *
, a Sturgeon-class hunter/killer submarine, cut through South Atlantic waters at a depth of seven hundred and fifty feet.
’s captain, Commander Burton C. Armus, was an unpolished bear of a man, ill-suited in size for submarine duty. But he had the devious, calculating mind it takes to hunt in the dark. The
was as far from the South Bronx as he could get, and he loved it.
Armus was in the process of “tickling” a Soviet Alpha-class sub-marine off Puerto Rico. The titanium-hulled alpha is the swiftest and deepest diving sub yet built. Armus had spent weeks sparring with his Russian counterpart to learn about its capabilities, and he had learned a lot. He was hunched over a chart in the
’s control room, plotting the alpha’s course and planning a countermove, when the communications officer handed him a teletype from ASW Pensacola which read:
FR: ASW PENSACOLA
TO: USS FINBACK
1. DISENGAGE PRESENT TARGET IMMED.
2.PROCEED TO 80W 22N ASAP. INTERCEPT TANKER VLCC KIRA DEPARTING CIENFUEGOS. TRACK TO CONFIRM
GULF DESTINATION. REPORT EVENT ASW PENSACOLA IMMED.
Babysit a fucking tanker?
As a security precaution, the orders were sent without a mission overview. And Armus’ reaction, if not eloquent was understandable. He had the alpha going in circles—an “underwater mind-fuck,” as he called it—and it killed him to let the Soviet submarine off the hook.
At about the same time, the
was slipping from her berth at the Soviet naval base in Cienfuegos.
means “Very Large Crude Carrier,” and measuring longer than four football fields, the
was properly classified. Her hold was empty of cargo, and she rode high in the water with ungainly majesty as the harbor pilot guided her through the channel. It was 4:07
when Captain Rublyov took over the helm.
Ostensibly, Fedor Rublyov was the civilian captain of an oil tanker. But he was actually a commander first rank in the Soviet Navy, one of their finest—which was why the
had been entrusted to his command.
He brought the huge vessel to starboard, and headed west into the orange fireball that sat on the horizon.
was waiting for her just outside Cuban territorial waters. The sub’s BQQ-6 bow-mounted sonar picked up the rumble of the
power plant and her twin screw cavitation the moment her engines went all-ahead-f, and she headed out to open sea.
in a looping arc below Cuba’s southern shore to its western-most tip. Crawling at a speed of eighteen knots, it took the tanker almost fifteen hours to reach the Yucatan Channel, where she swung north into the Mexican Gulf.
was still 750 miles from its offshore oil field destination when Armus brought the
to periscope antenna depth. Per the ASW directive, he contacted Pensacola—via SSIX, the geosynchronous satellite dedicated to U.S. submarine communications—and reported the
destination as the Gulf of Mexico, and position as 86W 22N. Almost immediately, the
printer came to life with a reply.
BRAVO FINBACK. CONTINUE TRACKING. GUIDE ASW VIKING TO TARGET AND MAINTAIN PERI-CONTACT TO VERIFY RENDEZVOUS. REPORT EVENT ASW PENSACOLA. TAKE NO OTHER ACTION. REPEAT NO OTHER ACTION
“Something weird’s cooking,” Armus said, handing the directive to the deck officer.
“We’re guiding an S-3A to a rendezvous?”
Armus shrugged. Both were reacting to the flip-flop in procedure—a Viking S-3A can detect submerged submarines, locating a surface vessel the size of the
would be child’s play. Neither knew the Viking had been gutted of all electronic tracking gear.
In Pensacola, Lowell and Arnsbarger were on twenty-four-hour alert when the
destination. Within minutes, they had their Viking S-3A in the air on a southeast, heading over the Mexican Gulf. Lowell was in the copilot’s seat instead of the TACCO bay behind. It was 7:05
They had been training for two days when Cissy remarked that Arnsbarger’s schedule had changed.
“We’re running tests on some new sub-tracking gear,” he had replied offhandedly.
“Oh,” she had said, letting it go. She was a military brat, and knew how to read between the lines.
The night before, Lowell had called his folks in Santa Barbara. He’d been planning on checking in; the high-risk nature of the mission prompted him to do it now. He had a long chat with his parents and younger sister, but nothing was said about the upcoming flight.
The Viking had been in the air a little over two hours when Arnsbarger locked the radio onto the SSIX band and flicked on his pipestem.
“This is ASW Viking, Alpha Charlie nine-four-zero, to
We read you, Viking.”
“Request data update on target, over.”
“Location 86.25W 22.37N. Heading three-one-zero.
“What’s your ETA, Viking?”
“Estimate visual contact, eight minutes.”
’s radar man had been tracking the Viking on the BPS-15 surface search scope.
“Thirty-five miles and closing,” he reported.
Armus had his big face pressed to the eyepiece of the periscope. “Viking sighted,” he announced about five minutes later. “Let’s talk to Pensacola.”
While Armus was reporting that the Viking/
rendezvous was imminent, Lowell and Arnsbarger had gotten a visual fix on the
Arnsbarger reset the radio to the international emergency band. “Let her rip,” he said.
Lowell pulled a remote control unit onto his lap. It resembled a minicomputer with a special keyboard, and had a procedure control list affixed inside the cover. The PCL enumerated three sequential event codes.
Arnsbarger looked back at the wing expectantly as Lowell keyed in the first code, and hit the SEND key.
There was a loud bang as an explosion blew a section of the cowling off the port side jet engine.
“Holy shit!” Arnsbarger exclaimed, in case anyone was listening. “We got us a fire in number one!”
“Must’ve blown a fuel line!” Lowell said.
Flames were licking at the exposed turbine, and smoke was streaming from the exhaust end of the nacelle, leaving a long trail in the sky.
Armus was staring wide-eyed through the periscope, and reining in his impulse to surface and take rescue action. The communications officer came running into the control room with an ASW directive, the meat of which read:
MAYDAY IS PLANNED EVENT. TAKE NO RESCUE ACTION. VERIFY TWO MAN VIKING CREW TAKEN ABOARD KIRA.
Armus’ brows went up. “Son of a bitch,” he said softly, and turned back to the periscope.
In the Viking, Arnsbarger and Lowell were watching the
coming closer and closer far below.
“About time we got rescued,” Lowell said, grinning.
Arnsbarger nodded, and flicked on his pipestem again. “Mayday!” he said. “This is USN Viking
nine-four-zero. We’re on fire! Mayday! Mayday!”
bridge, the first officer had spotted the crippled Viking’s smoke trail and notified Captain Rublyov. He was leaning into his binoculars when the
radio officer joined them.
“We have received a Mayday, Comrade Captain,” he said in Russian. “The pilot has identified as a U.S. Navy Viking.”
“A Viking—first we’ve seen this voyage,” the captain said, adding facetiously, “The Americans always make certain we aren’t torpedoed by Soviet submarines.”
“Do we respond, Comrade Captain?” the officer asked.
“Of course,” Rublyov replied. “We are the vessel nearest the May-
day, and will act accordingly. To do otherwise would create suspicion, and invite an inquiry. Put the bridge on the Viking’s frequency.”
The communications officer hurried off.
A smile broke across Rublyov’s pocked Slavik face. “Prepare to rescue crew
salvage craft,” he ordered the first officer. He knew the Viking S-3A carried top secret surveillance gear—and the
had a crane capable of hoisting the plane aboard, and acres of deck space to store her. “And have the CMO report to the bridge,” he added, scooping up the phone.
“Viking? Viking, this is
,” he said in heavily accented English. “We read your Mayday, and have you sighted. Do you read? Over.”
,” Arnsbarger replied. “We’re on fire. We’re going in. Over.”
“Suggest you ditch off our port bow, and remain with your craft if possible.”
“Affirmative. Port bow. We have visual fix. We’ll pancake her in.”
Lowell questioned Arnsbarger with a look. What the Russian captain had suggested was standard rescue procedure—but it wasn’t part of the scenario.
Arnsbarger winked. He suspected what the Russian captain was planning, and was playing a game with him.
Rublyov was still smiling when the chief missile officer reported to the bridge. The diminutive fellow wore blue clean-room coveralls and looked more like he’d come from surgery than the bowels of an oil tanker.
“Yes, Comrade Captain?”
“Secure your area, comrade,” Rublyov ordered. “The crew of that Viking will soon be aboard, and with any luck, so will their craft.”
“A Viking—” the CMO said, eyes brightening. He headed a team of missile electronics technicians who Rublyov knew were more than qualified to evaluate the Viking’s surveillance gear.
“You’ll have to tarp her, and work at night, but you’ll have sufficient time to pick her clean,” Rublyov went on. “
we can get her aboard, and
A loud boom from the Viking interrupted Rublyov. He and the CMO looked up to see a hole blown through the fuselage, black smoke rushing out of it.
Seconds earlier, Lowell had keyed another sequence into the remote control unit, setting off an explosive charge in the fuselage just aft of the flaming wing.
“Geezus! We’re losing the hydraulics,” Arnsbarger exclaimed. The explosion had no such effect. Nor did the damaged fuselage compromise the Viking’s ability to maneuver. The puncture and blown fuel line had been meticulously engineered—for effect only. The Viking was totally airworthy as Arnsbarger put it on an erratic flight path, making it appear out of control.
, this is Viking. Negative on that ditch,” Arnsbarger said, resuming the scenario. “We just lost our hydraulics. I can’t control her.”
Rublyov and the CMO exchanged pained looks.
“Read you Viking. You’re positive you can’t set down on the sea?” Rublyov prodded.
“Negative,” Arnsbarger said sharply. “I have no controls. We’re bailing out.”
“Shit—” Rublyov said under his breath.
Arnsbarger clicked off and started to chuckle, picturing the look on the Russian captain’s face.
“You ready?” he asked.
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t mind skipping this part.”
“Ditto. Let’s set it up and get out of here.”
Lowell nodded crisply. There would be no more talk. They had practiced this dozens of times. Now both moved with precision and speed. While Arnsbarger put the Viking on autopilot, Lowell keyed another sequence into the remote unit, and hit the TIME DELAY key. Then, he placed the unit on the floor and nodded to Arnsbarger. The pilot’s gut tightened as he reached for the bright yellow ejection seat lever and pulled it.
The tinted canopy blew off before Arnsbarger’s hand had released the lever. An instant later, the side by side ejection seats exploded upward from the Viking’s flight deck at slightly divergent angles. In a matter of seconds, they both had reached the apex of their trajectories and began plunging toward the sea.
Lowell was falling like a rock, when the chute blew out of his backpack, unfurled behind him, and mushroomed with a loud
, bringing his free-fall to a sudden stop. The jolt jerked the harness hard up into his groin, then the pressure eased and he began floating toward the sea. He looked up to see Arnsbarger’s chute mushroom, then glanced to the Viking. It was diving toward the sea, like a spent rocket-casing, when the remote unit sent the delayed signal. Two hundred pounds of plastic explosives packed into cavities in the plane’s airframe
erupted. The Viking disintegrated in midair, and showered the sea with debris.
Rublyov winced, then barked to the first officer, “Get the launch over the side.”
Lowell splashed down, and popped his harness. He was floating in his Mae West amidst an ever-widening slick of shark repellent. A life-raft was in the water behind him and had already started inflating. A long tether ran from it to Lowell’s wrist. He reeled it in, pulled himself over the side, and broke out a paddle.
Arnsbarger was still high above the sea; he saw the bright yellow shape below, and began working the control lines of his chute angling toward it.
engines were at full stop now. Her launch hit the water with the first officer and three crew members aboard. The diesel roared to life, and the launch pulled away from the huge vessel, cutting through the swells toward the bobbing raft about a thousand yards away.
Arnsbarger splashed down closer to the raft than he ever thought he could, shed his chute harness, and started swimming. Lowell paddled toward him, and in no time, Arnsbarger was crawling into the raft.