Authors: Greg Dinallo
After being plucked from the sea and brought aboard the
, Lowell and Arnsbarger had taken steaming hot showers, and exchanged drenched flight gear for denims, sweaters, and sneakers from the ship’s stores. Then they joined Captain Rublyov in the communications room, and contacted ASW Pensacola. They reported their rescue, the midair explosion of the Viking S-3A, and the “tragic loss” of two crewmen. After which, Rublyov made his suggestion of immediate pickup; and ASW replied it would be dark before a U.S. Navy search-and-rescue chopper could rendezvous, and postponed it until morning for reasons of safety.
“You’re both very lucky,” Rublyov said as they came from the communications room and climbed the companion way that led to the bridge.
“Yeah, I know,” Arnsbarger replied morosely, feigning sadness over the loss of his fellow crewmen. “Somehow, I don’t feel much like celebrating.”
When the three reached the landing at the top of the companionway Lowell put one foot up on the railing, the other far out behind him, and began stretching out the muscles in his legs.
“How long is this tub anyway, Captain?” he asked, casting a conspiratorial glance toward Arnsbarger.
“Four hundred forty-five meters is this tub.”
“Let’s see,” Lowell said calculating, “that’s about two laps to the mile. Any objections to me wearing a groove in your deck?”
“A groove?” asked Rublyov, not understanding.
“He’s a runner,” Arnsbarger chimed in.
“Ten-ks, marathons,” Lowell added, continuing the pre-run stretching ritual.
“Ah,” Rublyov said, catching on, “Not a good idea. The deck is a maze of pumping equipment and hoses. I’d be concerned for your safety.”
“Piece of cake compared to my usual route,” Lowell replied. “No cars, no attack dogs, no kids with garden hoses.” He turned and ran down the steps into the passageway, and kept going.
Arnsbarger shook his head in dismay. “Like somebody once said, every time I get an urge to exercise, I lie down till it goes away.”
Rublyov broke into an amused smile. He had no reason to suspect that Lowell’s request was part of a plan to search the
. He’d rather Lowell stayed off the deck, but couldn’t object strongly without tipping he had something to hide.
In developing the plan, DCI Boulton and analysts at CIA Headquarters in Langley had deduced that if a Soviet Heron missile was concealed aboard the
, causing the thousand-ton discrepancy they’d detected, it couldn’t be housed astern beneath the bridge and living quarters because the tanker’s engine room and fuel tanks were located there. Nor for reasons of safety, when taking on and pumping off crude, would it be amidships surrounded by the five cargo compartments that held 25,000 tons of oil each. If one of those
been modified, creating the discrepancy, it would be the forward-most compartment in the bow—far from where they knew Lowell and Arnsbarger would be quartered. Hence, the need for subterfuge to get onto the deck with far-ranging mobility.
Now, Captain Rublyov stood on the bridge, his binoculars trained on the tiny figure almost a quarter of a mile away on the
Lowell was running laps around the perimeter, between the pipe-and-cable railings and the massive hose fittings used to fill and empty the
’s compartments of crude. He had worked up a sweat and removed the sweater, tying it around his waist. His long, easy stride, and the fact that he was breathing as easily now as when he started running, confirmed he was a long-distance runner as he’d claimed.
Arnsbarger came up the companionway onto the bridge with a fresh cup of coffee, joining the captain and first officer. “Still at it, huh?”
“Yes, he’s most determined,” Rublyov replied.
“Compulsive type. Most TACCOS are.”
“Taccos?” Rublyov wondered, taking the bait and lowering the binoculars.
Arnsbarger made the remark to disrupt Rublyov’s scrutiny of Lowell. While Arnsbarger discoursed on the personality dynamics of those who can sit at a console and maintain their concentration hour after hour, Lowell was concentrating on the
Both men had been schooled intensively in the design, layout, and construction details of the tanker. And lap after lap, Lowell methodically swept his eyes across the companionways, bulwarks, hatches, and pumping equipment, searching for something that didn’t belong, particularly in the bow area.
Dusk was falling as Lowell finished the last lap. He returned to the bridge and signaled Arnsbarger with a look that he had spotted something. But it was after dinner before they could return to their compartment and talk without being overheard.
Arnsbarger turned on a small fan that was affixed to the bulkhead above his bunk. Then, in case their quarters had been bugged, he bent the housing until the tip of the spinning blade chattered noisily against it.
“Find us some nukes?” Arnsbarger whispered as he settled across from Lowell on the opposite bunk, their faces no more than a foot apart.
“Maybe. I found a hatch up on the starboard side, and a companion-way that goes below decks next to it,” Lowell replied in equally hushed tones.
“We talking a launching hatch?”
“Dunno. But the deck was cut away to put them in.”
“Yeah, the rivets are smaller, and the welds are different than on the rest of the ship. And the pipe railing on the companion way isn’t the same either.”
“Up in the bow, right?”
Lowell nodded grimly.
“That’s a long way from home,” Arnsbarger went on. “Even in the dark it’ll be hard to get back there without being spotted.”
“I know. There’s only one way to get on deck from our cabin, and it’s right below a lookout station.”
“And you can bet Rublyov’s got one sharp-eyed Ruskie posted just for us.” Arnsbarger thought a moment, then broke into a cagey smile.
“Be a shame for that lookout to sit out there in the cold all night with nobody to talk to.”
They decided to wait until captain and crew were quartered for the night, and make their move after the 2400 watch change. That meant they’d have four hours to search before
crewmen would be on deck again.
“This sure is different,” Lowell said. “I mean, I’d give anything to be up there hunting subs right now, instead of down here hiding.”
“Decided we’re a coupl’a wing nuts, huh?”
“Seriously, you thought about what we’re doing?”
“Seriously?” Arnsbarger leveled a thoughtful look at Lowell and nodded. “It scares the hell out of me.”
“That’s what Cissy’d say. She’s always telling me its okay to let my feelings show.”
“She’s right. What’s going on with you two, anyway? You going to make an honest woman out of her?”
“Been thinking about it a lot, but—”
“Come on, come on,” Lowell said, knowing what was coming and drawing it out of him. “But it—”
“Scares the hell out of me,” Arnsbarger said with a boyish smile. Lowell joined in on the last few words, and they were both still laughing as Arnsbarger reached up and turned off the chattering fan.
Hours later, the air temperature had dropped and a stiff breeze had come up. The seaman on lookout didn’t hear Arnsbarger purposely slam the hatch on the landing below and noisily bound down the steps of the companion way. By the time the Russian had spotted him, Arnsbarger was already on deck and moving astern.
Lowell was in the passageway behind the hatch, listening for the lookout and wondering why he hadn’t gone after Arnsbarger. Why hadn’t he taken the bait? Lowell had just opened the hatch a crack in an effort to ascertain why the diversion wasn’t working, when the seaman suddenly came down from the lookout and hurried after Arnsbarger. Lowell waited until the Russian was out of sight; then quickly, stealthily, he slipped through the hatch, and went down the companionway.
Clouds covered a crescent moon, and the
was cutting through the Gulf in total darkness as Lowell hurried along the immense main deck. He had never felt so alone. It was eerie and desolate, he thought, like being on a floating steel desert. A cold wind stung his face, and
blew his slicker flat against his body as he worked his way between the huge hatches and pumping equipment toward the bow.
Arnsbarger was leaning against the rail near the stern, looking out into the blackness, when the Russian seaman caught up with him.
“Can’t sleep?” the lookout asked amiably. He’d been instructed not to challenge the Americans unless they threatened the
’s security. To do so might raise suspicions that the tanker was something other than her appearance suggested.
“Yeah, I guess I’m still a little uptight,” Arnsbarger replied.
“Ah,” the Russian said. “I have a bottle of
. You know slivovitz?”
“Nope. Can’t say I ever met her.”
“Is plum brandy. A few shots and
like a bulb of light.” Why stand outside in the cold watching for them, the fellow thought, when he could be inside drinking with them. “The bottle’s in my cabin.”
“Okay, you got it,” Arnsbarger replied.
A steady spray was coming over the forecastle when Lowell reached the bow. He leaned into the salty drizzle and soon located the hatch and companionway he’d found earlier; then glancing around uneasily, he started down.
The staircase led below decks to a passageway that went off in two directions. Neither had prominence. Lowell made a quick decision and was just moving off when the sound of boots on steel echoed up ahead. There were no doors, no hiding places in the smooth-walled passageway. He reversed direction and hurried back toward the companion-way.
A guard carrying an AK-47 turned a corner. He strode down the passageway at a slow cadence, and paused at the base of the companionway.
Lowell had taken cover in the deeply shadowed well behind it. He was watching the guard through the spaces between the treads, and nervously eyeing the deck where his wet sneakers had left prints.
The stairwell was open to the sky. The guard glanced up longingly, then climbed a half dozen steps stopping inches from Lowell who could reach between the treads and touch him. The guard filled his lungs with the sea air, came back down, and continued his rounds.
The instant he was out of sight, Lowell came out from his hiding place and hurried off in the opposite direction. He soon came to a hatch in the dimly lit passageway, opened it cautiously, and heard the hiss of high-volume filtration used in air locks. An intense glow came from the far end of the L-shaped interface. He crept along the wall to the corner,
and peered round it. A window overlooked a brilliantly illuminated clean room beyond.
A Soviet SS-16A Heron missile was suspended in the cavernous space like an immense torpedo.
Lowell was staring right at the business end of the sleek weapon; and despite mission objectives, the discovery startled him. The bulbous graphite nose had been removed, revealing the pointed black cones of the missile’s seven warheads. It was like looking into a cup filled with gigantic just-sharpened pencils—each capable of unleashing nuclear destruction.
Banks of lights encircled the rocket’s finned titanium skin. The blinding halogens were focused on open access hatches, where components of the guidance and propulsion systems were visible.
Most of the technicians had long retired. But a few, in pale blue coveralls, were still monitoring test equipment. Lowell watched as one of them went along a catwalk to a landing and entered an elevator. The late hour and the fact that many vessels used bow space for crew quarters led Lowell to assume the technician was headed for his cabin—but Lowell was wrong. Missile group quarters were adjacent to, not below, the clean room. Lowell had only seen half the picture.
A numerical keypad on the wall next to the hatch—ostensibly requiring an access code—prevented him from entering the clean room. And he decided to leave before the guard returned.
Arnsbarger was with the Russian in his cabin. The seaman pulled the bottle of slivovitz from a hiding place beneath his bunk, held it aloft triumphantly, and headed out the door.
“Hey, where you going?” Arnsbarger asked.
“What about your friend?”
“Sound asleep,” Arnsbarger said, hiding the surge of adrenalin that hit him. “All that jogging knocked the shit out of him. Come on, let’s drink that here.”
“Maybe he woke up,” the Russian insisted, heading down the passageway. Arnsbarger was right behind him.
In the bow, Lowell had eluded the guard, scurried up the companion-way, and started the long walk back on the main deck.
Arnsbarger and the Russian had come from crew quarters in the stern, crossed the deck, and climbed the companionway to the guest compartments.
The Russian opened the door and entered, then looked back at Arnsbarger.
“He’s not here,” he said suspiciously. “I thought you said he was asleep?”
“Guess he must’ve gone to the head,” Arnsbarger bluffed. The bedding was appropriately mussed, but he could see the Russian wondering what, if anything, was going on. “You going to crack that open or hug it?” he asked, trying to keep him from going to look for Lowell. He flipped up the foldaway table and set two cups on it. “There we go,” he said, taking the bottle. He pulled the cork, filled the cups with the clear, thin brandy, and offered one to the Russian who shook no warily. He was about to leave the compartment to search for Lowell when the lanky Californian entered from the companionway.
“Here he is,” Arnsbarger said, concealing his relief and, using his eyes to warn Lowell, added, “My friend, here, brought us a little nightcap.”
“Great,” Lowell said as he took off his slicker and dropped it on a hook.
“Does he always wear his slicker to the head?” the Russian asked facetiously.
Arnsbarger forced a chuckle.
“I went for a walk on deck,” Lowell replied nonchalantly. He fell on a bunk flicking a nervous look to Arnsbarger, who returned it confirming the Russian was suspicious.