SAILORS TAKE WARNING
Nautical Fiction by Malcolm Torres ©
PART 2 of 5
The aircraft carrier Nimitz steams toward the equator where her crew of 5,000 women and men will hold an ancient hazing ritual, but something is wrong aboard the ship.
Bodies have turned up missing from the morgue and several jets have been sabotaged on the flight deck.
Can Corpsman Kate Conrad and deckhand Terrance McDaniels figure out what’s wrong before the ship crosses the Golden Line? Even if they do, will their superior officers listen to them and prevent a disaster at sea?
* * *
A new part will be posted weekly in August and September 2016. Check back to read Sailors Take Warning here on the blog, or if you would like a free eBook or paperback of Sailors Take Warning in exchange for an honest review on Amazon, send the author your contact info. Your info will never be shared and you will not be spammed.
* * *
PART II: THE STINGERS
CHAPTER SEVEN – Day 2
Chief Crenki put down the day’s thirteenth mug of black coffee, held a radio to the side of his grizzled face and barked, “Are you telling me Terrance McDaniels left the cockpit open on three zero seven and we just steamed under a raincloud?”
“Roger, chief, this aircraft is all fucked up,” a technician said through static. “Most of the electronics gear in the cockpit is wet and has to be replaced before it can fly again, so we’re taking this bird down to the hangar right now.”
“Dammit!” Crenki slammed the radio down on his desk and grabbed the phone. He hit speed dial for the line shack with a trembling finger.
“What do you want?” a raspy voice answered.
“Identify yourself,” Crenki demanded.
“Danny Jenks, now identify your-damn-self!”
“This is Chief Crenki!” He knew Jenks, a shitbird in the Stinger line shack. Jenks joined the squadron a couple years ago, a newly minted electronics tech, but got into a scandal and they shit-canned him to the line shack.
“Send McDaniels to see me right now,” Crenki ordered.
“Gotta find him,” Jenks said.
“Well, go find him,” Crenki said.
Danny Jenks, a thin, tall 20-year-old with a sharp jaw and a bad haircut, cursed the oily jet exhaust that made his face break out with tiny pimples. He didn’t want to see McDaniels because he owed McDaniels money.
“Who doesn’t owe that hay-bailer money?” Jenks wondered as he looked at a whiteboard showing the location of each Stinger aircraft. He read, “McDaniels 309 hangar” scribbled in black Sharpie. “Three oh nine?” He could’ve sworn Crenki said 307.
In an uncharacteristically conscientious gesture, Jenks called Crenki back.
“You want Terrance McDaniels, right?” Jenks asked.
“Correct, send him to me on the double.”
“Whatever you say.” Jenks exited the line shack—a cramped steel compartment under the flight deck where the Stinger line crew kept tiedown chains.
At the top of the ladder, Jenks grabbed the railings and leaped so high his knees hit his chest and he slid on his hands down to the next level. The soles of his steel-toed boots slapped the metal deck. In one fluid move, he took two quick steps to the top of the next ladder and threw himself down again. He knew the safety rule required three points of contact—two hands and one foot at all times—while descending ladders, but he didn’t give a shit.
* * *
Danny Jenks could have had good grades in high school, if he wanted, but he played X-Box and never turned in homework. His apathy wasn’t due to a lack of intellectual curiosity, but the result of a shitty home life. He’d never met his father and his mother introduced him to a new roughneck boyfriend every few weeks—the monthly man of her dreams. One gave Danny a fat lip, black eye combo when he woke up and caught Danny stealing coins from his pants pocket. That soured Danny on being a tough guy and taught him that the main problem with stealing was getting caught.
After earning the highest military entry exam scores his recruiter had ever seen, Jenks left home without even saying goodbye to his mother. After boot camp, he attended aviation armament systems training. Back then, he wore a crewcut, starched his shirts and polished his boots. His interest in weapons systems went beyond the Navy’s electronics curriculum. Sure, he studied the textbooks, but then he read graphic sci-fi and horror novels, before turning his attention to defense contractor magazines where he read about particle beams and rail guns. He loved the technical specs, color photos and diagrams. He thought he understood it just fine, but the fiction and the military technology mixed up in his head, and he started believing there were weapons systems engineers hiding in underground labs, plotting the end of the world, like bad guys in a special edition Marvel Comic book.
About a month after arriving at the Stinger squadron, Lieutenant Gould approached Jenks. “You know everything about the Hornet’s armament systems,” Gould began, “so you’re a perfect candidate for a special assignment.”
For the first time in his life, Jenks felt wanted.
Gould said the Stingers had an elite weapons loading team, “just in case we’re called on to carry out a nuclear strike.”
They sent him to a nuclear weapons training on Nevada’s high desert, where brown mountains rose above the sage-dotted plateau. Nine hours a day for 30 days, Jenks and a small group of other sailors studied nuke weapons loading, arming, circuitry and trigger mechanisms. The instructors taught with classified textbooks, simulation software and mock-up missiles. It fascinated Jenks that a garbage-can-sized device could incinerate a densely populated urban area.
* * *
In the cavernous hangar, a breeze mingled the industrial odors of polyurethane paint, jet fuel and grease. Yellow lights overhead cast shadows under jet wings. Pneumatic wrenches and airbrushes, wielded by overall-clad mechanics, clattered and hissed.
A tow tractor clamped to the nose wheel of Stinger 309 and a gang of deckapes scrambled around, pulling wheel chocks and unsnapping tiedown chains. Terrance McDaniels sat in the cockpit, riding the brakes.
“Cranky wants your ass,” Jenks shouted.
“What for?” Terrance asked, but a siren whooped as the aircraft elevator lowered on dozens of greasy cables. The tow tractor pushed 309 onto the elevator, where the deckapes chocked the wheels and chained it to the black metal grid.
Terrance climbed down and asked. “What’s Cranky want?”
“I don’t know,” Jenks replied, “but he’s pissed.”
Something sour kicked the back of Terrance’s nostrils, and he wondered if it was Jenks’ breath or his filthy body. Probably both. Terrance exhaled sharply and walked to the edge of the elevator. A refreshing breeze blew against his face. Whitecapped waves covered the sea, clear to the horizon.
The siren whooped as the elevator rose smoothly and became a seamless part of the flight deck. Terrance kept his head turning so he always knew what was going on around him. He’d seen thousands of jets scream in out of the sky and try to catch an arresting wire at 200 miles per hour, but miss it and bolt back into the sky with afterburners spitting 50-foot licks of flame. Helicopters and prop planes took off and landed constantly. The crew regularly serviced aircraft with potentially explosive liquid oxygen and flammable fuel. They prepared jets for missions by loading them with bombs and rockets. Adding to the danger there was no railing on the flight deck.
Jenks and McDaniels pulled sound attenuators on their helmets down to protect their ears. Terrance lowered his goggles.
Just in case anyone fell in the water, there was always a chopper hovering nearby the ship, ready to swoop in for a rescue.
A mechanic in the cockpit of an A-6 Prowler pushed the throttles forward, and the aircraft roared like thunder.
Terrance put his mouth to Jenks’ right ear cover and said, “You owe me money.”
Jenks wanted to knock McDaniels to the deck, but knew the big farm boy wouldn’t go down easy. “I’ll give you a few bucks on payday,” Jenks said.
Terrance pulled a tiny notebook from his back pocket, flipped it open and checked his figures. “You owe me four hundred and seventy-five dollars.”
“Don’t worry,” Jenks said. “I’ll get it to you.”
“Watch my bird while I go see Cranky,” Terrance said.
“Sure,” Jenks replied, “I’ll keep an eye on your bird.”
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CHAPTER EIGHT – Day 2
On her 19th birthday, Nikki Thompson raised her right hand at a recruiting station in Detroit and swore to defend the United States while serving in the US Navy; then she flew to sunny San Diego for eight weeks of boot camp and two weeks of HR data systems training. After that the Navy sent her to the Philippines to meet her ship—the USS Nimitz.
When Nikki arrived at the Manila International Airport, the place was a zoo. Throngs of people waiting in lines and hordes of hawkers selling flowers, cigarettes, candy, bottled water and pre-paid phone cards, none of which Nikki wanted. She took a bus to the waterfront where the Nimitz sat tied to a long concrete pier.
Pride and intimidation compressed like a powerful spring inside her chest as she trudged up the gangway with her overloaded seabag strapped on her back. Overwhelmed by the sheer size of the ship looming above her, she feared she wouldn’t be able to speak when she reached the quarterdeck. The superstructure towered into the sky. Ropes as thick as her leg crisscrossed from the ship to the pier. Tied off to big metal bits, the ropes kept the ship from floating away. In Detroit, she’d seen plenty of mile-long factories, but never this much steel. The ship hummed and steam hissed and water gurgled from pipes along its metal sides. Sailors on the pier looked tough, standing around in tight T-shirts, exposing tattooed arms. Handsome officers in crisp uniforms, some with gold bars on their shoulder boards and hats.
These were fleet sailors.
Red, white and blue bunting and bright white ropes tied in elaborate knots festooned the top of the gangway. Under the glaring sun, a man in dress whites stood behind a podium staring at her.
“Nikki Thompson, reporting for duty, sir,” she chirped. But the man just stood there, and she knew she’d forgotten an official gesture or a required phrase. Embarrassed, she started digging in her purse for her orders.
“Salute the ensign,” the man said with a wink.
Then she remembered her boot camp training and popped to attention. Her right hand rose in a crisp salute, she pivoted to face the aft end of the ship where she knew the American Flag was flying and proudly said, “Request permission to come aboard, sir.”
“Permission granted,” the man replied.
* * *
Inside the ship, like an ant underground, Nikki made her way through cramped passageways, among pilots in flight suits and dress uniforms, sailors in colored jerseys, and hunky marines in tan camouflage and shiny combat boots. She never knew what deck she was on or if she was heading forward or aft while trying to find her way around. She figured out how to get to the galley for meals and to her tiny cubicle in the ship’s personnel office, but that was it.
On her second day aboard, a shrill whistle blew from a speaker above her desk. Startled, she jumped to her feet. She listened to an announcement and recognized the phrase “weigh anchor” which meant they were leaving Manila, but the rest of it made no sense and she wondered where they were bound.
The ship barely swayed and it felt like they weren’t moving at all. A few days after they’d supposedly left Manila, she discovered a ladder tucked behind a big pipe near the main galley. She climbed it and found an open door to the aircraft hangar. Venturing into the enormous space, she picked her way carefully between strange machines and metal containers stacked to the ceiling. Wandering around, she checked out the airplanes, impressed by the sleek lines along their cockpits and wings. The strong smell of grease and spray paint dissipated as a fresh ocean breeze blew in. She walked over to the oblong opening in the side of the ship, stood near the cable railing and gazed at the sun shining on the ocean. Surprised at how the water whisked by so fast, she felt the deck grumble in the soles of her shoes. Sunlight on the silky waves worked like a tranquilizer. The clatter of power tools and humming air compressors faded in the background as she listened to the ship plow a splashing wake through the sea.
An authoritative male voice boomed from speakers on the flight deck above. She heard “make a ready deck” and “stand by to land aircraft.” A SHRIEK, followed by a CLANK and a BANG and a jet engine growling so loud she plugged her fingers in her ears, reminded her that there really was an airport on top of the ship.
* * *
After three weeks at sea, life aboard stopped revealing little surprises, and Nikki Thompson’s days fell into tight predictable routines, each an exact duplicate of the one before. The day, the month and the time of year had no significance. She was bored. Each day she woke up, got dressed, ate breakfast in the galley, and at 7:15 she sat down at her desk, in her cubicle at the back of the ship’s administrative office, staring at her computer screen. She quickly figured out how to complete all her data entry, scanning and filing. She asked her supervisor for more work, hoping for something interesting, but he piled on payroll corrections and promotion processing, which she quickly mastered. She started taking two-hour lunches and working out in the gym, where she did crunches and curls and hit the rowing machine. One night in the library, looking at a world map on the wall, she figured if the rowing machine were an actual rowboat, she could have stroked her way from Manila all the way to Sri Lanka by now. She tried reading to pass the time but romance novels pricked her libido. She started flirting with guys and that led to an even more depressing level of frustration, because none of them could pull off anything even remotely resembling a date. A technician propositioned her with a hook-up in a ventilation duct, and she seriously considered it. That’s what it came down to, because there was no privacy. People were jammed into every inch of the ship. To make matters worse, any public display of affection could bring disciplinary action. She worked in the HR department, after all, and they’d drilled it into her during human resources training in San Diego that she had to be a role model of the Navy’s many policies, especially the one that stipulated no sex at sea.
* * *
One day her supervisor invited her to a department staff meeting. She sat close to the head of a long wooden table and waited for the meeting to start. Suddenly a door opened and someone shouted “Attention on deck!” Everyone jumped to their feet and stood up straight. She’d learned about this in boot camp, but it was exciting to do it for real.
Captain Samuel Brandt stepped to the front of the room.
His confidence and seriousness were palpable, especially the way he told everyone to sit down, but he stayed standing throughout the meeting. He wore khaki pants and a short-sleeved shirt, shined shoes and captain’s eagles on his collar points. Nikki thought he looked like a total stud with short-cropped hair and a rugged, clean-shaven face. A crafty kind of intelligence sparkled in his eyes. He kept everyone keyed up, like a trigger cocked and ready to shoot, because nobody knew when he’d fire a question at them. The old-school tattoos on his brawny forearms—a savage tiger tearing the skin on one and a hula girl shaking her hips on the other—were so unlike the nerdy instructors who taught the data entry classes back in San Diego. Everything about him, from his staccato questions and orders, to his occasional irreverent snip of a joke, turned her on.
She’d never met a man whose presence intimidated younger, stronger guys—literally made them jump to attention when he entered the room. The power oozing off Captain Brandt had her daydreaming about ways she might get close to him.
* * *
Brandt saw Nikki the second he entered the room. She somehow made her uniform look like a slutty Halloween costume. He liked that blend of youthful innocence and Rite Aid sophistication. He wanted her.
At the end of the meeting, as everyone filed out, he startled her by gently grabbing her forearm and whispering, “Excuse me, miss. I’m Captain Samuel Brandt, the ship’s executive officer. Please introduce yourself.”
Nikki’s heart banged out a series of irregular beats. His warm hand lingered gently on her forearm and his causal grip caused her heart to settle into a slow steady throb. She heard words blabbering from her mouth as she introduced herself. At some point she stopped speaking, unaware of what she’d actually said, and realized they hadn’t broken eye contact and neither of them wanted to. His cool blue gaze melted wonderfully into her hazel green eyes.
He licked his lips and stared at her smooth neck and silky blonde hair—inching closer to her every few seconds, all the while asking about her training, and seeming unusually interested in what they were teaching back in San Diego.
Her mind relinquished decision-making power to her burning body when she realized that they were alone in the compartment.
He continued to punctuate his interest in what she was saying by occasionally touching her forearm or shoulder.
She caught a faint whiff of manly body wash from his open shirt collar.
CHAPTER NINE – Day 2
As Chief Crenki berated Terrance McDaniels in the narrow passageway outside the Stinger maintenance office, Terrance studied Crenki’s whiskered face. The stink of cigarettes—like dried-out dog shit moistened with cold coffee—blasted through Crenki’s yellow teeth and drilled deep into the back of Terrance McDaniels’ nasal passages. Crenki had been trying unsuccessfully to nail McDaniels for a long time, but this rain-in-the-cockpit disaster gave him license to rip McDaniels a new asshole. The over-caffeinated circuits in Crenki’s brain fired excitedly.
“I know you don’t want to pay for the black boxes that were ruined when you left the cockpit open, although we both know you can afford it with all the money you make.” Crenki hinted that he knew about McDaniels’ sales and loan sharking operation.
Terrance watched a vein in Crenki’s forehead wiggle like an earthworm under a rock.
Crenki searched McDaniels’ eyes for any sign of guilt. “Sometimes I wonder if you’re the scumbag who’s sabotaging my engines.”
That very morning an engineer in the jet repair shop gave Crenki a report that proved someone had placed bits of stainless steel in six aircraft intake ducts, and when those engines sucked them in, it caused severe damage to their compressor blades and rendered them useless. Those incidents grounded all six aircraft while Stinger mechanics replaced their engines.
Although Crenki enjoyed tearing into McDaniels for leaving his cockpit open, a vague uncertainty lingered, because McDaniels had never botched anything this badly. Nevertheless, Crenki laid into McDaniels, trying to provoke insubordination, maybe nail him with dereliction of duty. Crenki wanted McDaniels confined to his bunk during the upcoming equator-crossing hazing ritual. Nothing infuriated him more than the thought of having his ass paddled by Terrance McDaniels when the Nimitz crossed the equator in the next couple of weeks. Blood boiled in Crenki’s stomach. During 20 years in the Navy, he hadn’t crossed the equator aboard ship, and therefore hadn’t crawled before King Neptune’s Royal Order of the Deep and therefore couldn’t call himself a Trusty Shellback.
“Exactly what do you have to say for yourself, McDaniels?” Crenki’s growl filled the narrow passageway.
Terrance stared blankly into Crenki’s gnarled old face.
“Well, chief, I don’t know.” Terrance put his fingers to his lips. “You sure you’re talking about aircraft three zero seven?”
“Yes, your jet. The one taken down to the hangar after the cockpit got rained in.” Death threats rode on Crenki’s stare. “And where the hell were you anyway? Probably out peddling contraband when you should have been tending your aircraft?”
Over Crenki’s shoulder, Terrance saw Commander Aronson, the Stinger’s commanding officer, in flight suit and crash helmet, coming down the passageway. Terrance rolled his shoulders back and put a self-righteous expression on his face.
Crenki thought McDaniels might take a swing. The sensation excited him.
“Well, Chief,” Terrance said, trying hard to push one of Crenki’s easily accessible self-destruct buttons. “Three zero seven is not my aircraft. Three zero nine is my aircraft, and it’s a go on the next launch.”
Blood seeped through the ulcerated lining in Crenki’s stomach and nerve endings short-circuited in his brain. A torrent of foul language bottlenecked in a vision-fuzzing spark behind his eyeballs. “Do not lie to me, McDaniels. Your Hornet is side number three zero fucking seven.”
Terrance exaggerated his Nebraska farm-boy accent. “Chief, I ain’t lying. I got three oh nine.” And when Crenki opened his mouth to speak, Terrance said, “You got bad information, chief.”
“Who is the plane captain on three zero seven?” Crenki snapped his mouth shut, as another electric spark of hot plasma and digestive acids rose into his esophagus.
Terrance cringed at Crenki’s stinky breath, and studied his eyes, now pulsing out of their sockets on detrimentally high blood pressure. Terrance retreated against the bulkhead. “I don’t know who’s got three zero seven,” he lied. Crenki could find out for himself.
Commander Aronson strolled up behind him.
“Chief Crenki, has this man caused a problem?” Aronson asked in an authoritative tone, tempered by years of hearing his underlings call him sir.
Crenki clenched his fists at his sides and turned to Aronson. “Well, uh, McDaniels, or uhm, rather—” Crenki stuttered as he patted McDaniels on the shoulder. “No, sir, uh, one of our cockpits got rained in and, uh, a mechanic told me—”
“Rain in one of our cockpits?” Rage radiated along every nerve in Aronson’s body. That very morning he’d met with Captain Brandt to discuss a new engineering report that proved Stinger engines were being sabotaged! “How did a cockpit get rained in?”
“I’m trying to find out, exactly,” Crenki stammered, “uh, sir.”
“Get to the bottom of this, Crenki, and report back to me.” Aronson’s stare, like a laser, almost burned holes in Crenki’s face. “Sabotage on Stinger engines,” Aronson shouted, “and now rain in a cockpit! Unacceptable!
If you would like a free eBook or paperback copy of Sailors Take Warning in exchange for an honest review on Amazon, send the author your contact info. Your info will never be shared and you will not be spammed. You can purchase the eBook for $2.99 or the paperback for $11.99 on Amazon.
CHAPTER TEN – Day 2
After being chewed out by Chief Crenki for something he didn’t even do, Terrance McDaniels returned to the flight deck.
“So, when you gonna pay me the money you owe?” he asked Danny Jenks.
But Jenks just smirked and slinked off because they both saw Commander Aronson approaching across the flight deck. Aronson walked up to McDaniels and asked gruffly, “Is this Hornet ready to fly?”
“Let’s do a walk around and make sure,” Terrance said.
Commander Aronson wore combat boots, a green flight suit with the Stinger insignia—a fierce Hornet poised to plant its needle-sharp stinger¬¬—and an American flag sewn on the sleeve. The crash helmet’s dark visor obscured his eyes, so Terrance could only see his chin, speckled with whiskers.
Circling the aircraft, they checked the engine oil and hydraulic gauges. They examined the tires. At each air intake duct, Terrance crawled down headfirst to inspect for structural integrity and ensure no foreign objects were present.
When running, the engines inhale thousands of cubic feet of air each second. They inject the air with fuel, compress it and ignite it in a series of chambers that creates a constant highly-controlled explosion. The resulting thrust propels the Hornet across the sky at up to 1,500 miles per hour.
With his head and torso jammed inside the duct, Terrance ran his hands over the smooth throat, inspecting for loose rivets and cracks. He burrowed down close to the compressor blades and shined his flashlight on each while spinning the fan slowly. He squinted but didn’t see any nicks or cracks. He wondered about his shipmates on the Stinger line division who’d gone down the intake ducts on every engine that had been damaged over the past few months. What had they missed? None of them had found anything unusual, but after each of those aircraft started, something went wrong. Either the engines sucked in a small bit of metal that tore their insides apart, or a foreign object, like a loose nut or bolt was already down inside each engine before it started.
Terrance spun the blender-like fan there in the dim light and recalled a few weeks earlier watching a Stinger Hornet taxi to the steam-powered catapult. Deckhands attached the launch bar and signaled the pilot to push the throttles to full power. He watched in awe as the Hornet’s engines roared and flames burst from the afterburners like a dragon breathing fire. Suddenly sparks shot from the jet’s exhaust. Something had broken loose. The pilot shut it down, because anyone standing nearby could have been injured or killed if the engine came apart.
“How do they look, McDaniels?” Aronson asked after McDaniels dove both intakes.
“Ready for flight, sir.”
A metallic voice announced from the deckedge loudspeakers. “ALL UNNECESSARY PERSONNEL CLEAR THE FLIGHT DECK AND CATWALKS. ALL REMAINING PERSONNEL GET IN THE PROPER FLIGHT DECK UNIFORM. SLEEVES ROLLED DOWN, FLOATATION VESTS, CRANIAL HELMETS, GOGGLES AND CHIN STRAPS SECURELY FASTENED. START THE GO AIRCRAFT.”
A moment later the Hornet inhaled a continuous flow of air through its intake ducts and blasted hot exhaust from its tailcones.
With hand signals, McDaniels told Aronson to lower the tailhook and flaps. He checked them and gave Aronson a thumbs-up. Then he stuck his head inside the landing gear wheel well to check the pressure on the hydraulic gauges.
He took off the chains holding the main landing gear to the deck and swung them over his shoulders. Weighted down with 60 pounds, he saluted Aronson and made his way to the catwalk, between taxiing jets and spinning propellers. As they hooked his jet to the catapult, he felt the ship accelerating and shuddering. He stepped down a narrow ladder into the catwalk and entered the ship through a door in the hull. He turned away from the screaming engines, the stifling heat and the crackling sun, as he stepped inside the ship. He did not want to watch his aircraft take off. It had never gone down on the launch, and he did not anticipate it would now.
In the line shack, plane captains sat on metal folding chairs, smoking and carrying on a dozen conversations.
“What’re you doing here?” Jenks asked.
“They got Aronson on the catapult now.” Terrance said. “There’s no way he’s going down.”
“HEADS UP BEHIND CATAPULT ONE. HORNET SHOOTING SPARKS.”
“Shit!” Terrance ran to the catwalk. Several plane captains followed.
Did the Stingers fod another engine?
The directors attached a tow tractor to Terrance’s jet and pulled it off the catapult. They parked it in front of the superstructure. Terrance scrambled around chaining it to the deck, and then he lowered the cockpit ladder.
Aronson climbed down. He raised the dark visor, stared hard at Terrance and demanded, “Did you see anything out of place when you went down those intakes?”
“No, sir,” Terrance replied.
“Go explain that to Chief Crenki.”
Terrance hesitated at the thought of facing Crenki again.
* * *
“Shit! Another fodded engine,” Crenki’s screamed. “That’s it. Every Stinger is under suspicion.” He sucked a big drag that sharpened his cigarette to a glowing orange pencil-point. He gulped scalding black coffee and grinded his molars. “Who the fuck is sabotaging my Hornets?” he demanded as Terrance McDaniels appeared in the doorway.
CHAPTER ELEVEN – Day 2
A broiled T-bone steak and lobster tail, broccoli with melted cheddar and a baked potato slathered with butter and sour cream sat on a plate in front of Mr. Bradmore, sending a delicious, steamy aroma into his face. He wanted to dig in but minded his manners, because Captain Fox, who sat across from him, hadn’t touched his utensils yet.
“What are your plans after the Navy?” Fox asked.
“I should give it more thought than I do,” Bradmore admitted, “two more years and I can retire.”
“So you’ve been on active duty for eighteen years?” Fox asked.
“Yes. How about you? Any plans after the Navy?”
“I’ll be joining the board of directors at TenRay Corporation,” Fox said.
With such a big stake in TenRay, Bradmore wondered, how could Fox report to the Pentagon on the system’s performance with any objectivity?
When Fox picked up his fork and knife and began sawing into his steak, Bradmore did the same. He chewed, swallowed and attempted to change the subject. “My wife and I have a condo in Chula Vista, she’s a teacher there,” Bradmore said. “Whatever I do after the Navy, I’ll be staying in San Diego.”
“What a coincidence,” Fox said warmly. “TenRay’s headquarters are in National City, right down the road.”
“Interesting.” Bradmore sensed strings attached to the delicious dinner.
“You know, Mr. Bradmore,” Fox said, making eye contact with a quick glance across the table, “after you and I figure out how to make this cloaking system a success, the Navy will purchase millions of dollars’ worth of TenRay gear over the next several decades.”
“Amazing technology,” he said.
“Yes it is.” Fox put a medium-well piece of steak into his mouth and chewed vigorously.
“Big hurdles to overcome though,” Bradmore said.
“The static?” Fox snapped.
Regretting his comment, Bradmore said, “We’ll figure it out, the team’s working on that risk mitigation plan.”
“I’ll be candid with you,” Fox said. “Your technical skills got you where you are, but they’re not going to get you where you want to go.”
Bradmore paused with a cheesy broccoli bud halfway to his mouth. Eighteen years in the Navy, and no one had ever spoken to him like that. Sure, he’d had feedback during annual reviews, a few commendations along the way, but he was a working guy; rotating between sea deployments and shore duty. He’d never thought much beyond the work-a-day life, standing watches, managing projects. “What do you mean, sir?” he asked earnestly.
“The static from the mirage projector does present some risk but it’s just that—static. Turn it down and tune it out, because I want you to hear a different message now. Can you do that?”
“I’m all ears.”
“We’ll work out the bugs, trust me, but right now I want you to think about the big picture.” Fox sawed into his steak. “You and your wife have children, don’t you?”
Thrown by the question, Bradmore asked, “Excuse me?”
“You have kids, right?”
Bradmore didn’t see where this was leading, but realized he didn’t have time to analyze it. He said, “My son is sixteen and my daughters are nine and seven. How about you?”
“Mine are twenty-eight and thirty-one. Have you thought about how you’re going to pay for their college?”
“We’ve set a little money aside.” Bradmore’s brow furrowed. “But, it’s not enough. I worry about it.”
Fox leaned over the table, a sparkle in his eye, and said, “Make the cloaking system a success, and then come work for me at TenRay.”
“Seriously?” Bradmore asked, pleasantly surprised.
“Yes.” Fox smiled again. “You won’t have to worry about paying for your kids’ college.”
Bradmore’s brain lit up like a Christmas tree. He saw his wife and kids splashing in an in-ground pool. Palm trees and flowering shrubs around a lush green lawn. A brick ranch house with a tiled roof. Through a sliding glass patio door, he saw right through the living room and out a big front window where the San Diego skyline shimmered in the afternoon heat a few miles away. The ocean sparkled in the distance.
Fox and Bradmore stared into each other eyes. Fox chewed and swallowed a mouthful of buttery lobster. “I need you to help me make the TenRay cloaking system a success, Mr. Bradmore.”
“I can see that, sir,” Bradmore said dreamily. “I see it clearly.”
CHAPTER TWELVE – Day 2
Silk boxers and clean pants after a hot shower would have to do, because a splash of cologne was out of the question. That would arouse the suspicion of Terrance’s shipmates.
He walked to the library and sat on a wooden chair between the stacks.
Kate studied titles on books lining the shelves, pretending to search for something particular. Hooking up this way had gone according to plan several times. She’d wink and they’d leave the library separately, taking different routes.
Kate’s Flying Squad duties included keeping remote medical station 12 ready. In an emergency, like a fire, an attack or a plane crash, station 12 was equipped to provide trauma care.
Kate arrived first and flicked on the red emergency battle lantern. Terrance arrived a moment later and padlocked the door from inside. She folded an operating table down from the bulkhead. Backpacks full of emergency response gear hung on hooks. Several metal drums on the floor crowded the tiny space.
Kate slid onto the padded operating table. Terrance stood between her legs. They kissed in the battle lantern’s dim red glow.
The steady hum of machinery rose through the deck.
“You look nice,” Kate whispered.
He handed her two foam earplugs.
“I thought you liked me greasy,” he said.
They rolled the earplugs between their fingers.
“I like you better cleaned up.”
“TIME FOR ALL UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL TO CLEAR THE FLIGHT DECK AND CATWALKS,” the voice boomed outside, “ALL REMAINING PERSONNEL GET IN THE PROPER FLIGHT DECK UNIFORM—”
Kate pressed the earplugs in. Her hands trembled as she unbuttoned Terrance’s shirt.
“—SLEEVES ROLLED DOWN, CRANIAL HELMETS AND GOGGLES PROPERLY FASTENED—” blasted across the darkened deck above.
Terrance’s belt buckle jingled in her frantic fingers. Their attempt at slow romance and seductive disrobing abruptly ended.
“—FLOATATION VESTS SECURELY SNAPPED.”
Boots clunked in the red-lit darkness.
Clumsily they shed their clothes.
“NOW START ALL THE GO AIRCRAFT. START ALL THE GO AIRCRAFT.”
They embraced and kissed with their tongues as jet engines hummed to life a few feet above their heads. The sound exploded like an army of ferocious air compressors. Entire squadrons of jets burned fuel and air furiously. Kate pressed her earplugs in further and lost herself as the blast rose to a static roar.
Catapults, firing after sudden injections of compressed steam, whistled as they shot pilots in their sleek machines into the night sky. Every few seconds another distinguished itself above the howl, as it rose to full power and rocketed from the deck. The compartment shook like a roller coaster on metal tracks.
In the red glow, they kissed and caressed. The steel plates and I-beams around them rang with a colossal CLANG each time a catapult shuttle reached the end of its stroke and launched a jet into the sky.
In nearby compartments, crewmembers who weren’t working the launch, sat and listened to the raucous machines. Covered by the roar of launching aircraft, Kate and Terrance made reckless, noisy love.
Afterward, they cuddled on the narrow operating table. The deckedge loudspeaker shattered the silence. “WRAP UP THE CATAPULTS, LAUNCH COMPLETE.”
They scrambled to find their clothes.
Kate finished dressing and flipped on the lights.
Terrance pulled up his pants and sat on one of the metal drums to lace his boots. “What are these?” He slapped the top of one of the drums. “Doesn’t look like medical supplies.”
“Liferafts. They’re supposed to attach them to the railing outside.” She pointed over her shoulder, toward the flight deck catwalk beyond the door at the end of the passageway.
“Who?” Terrance asked.
“They have access to this space?” Terrance asked.
“You mean someone might bang on the door while we’re in here?”
“That could happen.” Kate smiled mischievously. “That’s why we lock it from inside.”
Terrance almost said they should find somewhere else, but nowhere else existed.
“We have no choice,” Kate said.
“Nothing could stop me from being with you, especially the way you wink at me,” he said.
“You keep me sane,” she said. “I get so bored in the pharmacy, I start hoping for an alarm, even a drill, anything to break the monotony.”
“I don’t know how you do it. I’m outside breathing fresh air all day.”
“I feel like an ant underground,” she said.
“Awhile back they sent me to work in the supply department,” he said. “I didn’t see the sun for two weeks.”
“We just sit around gossiping about missing bodies.”
Her missing-body stories seemed a lot more serious lately, he thought.
“I don’t believe Commander Sternz,” she said. “When I told her Stanley Comello’s body was gone, her facial expression said it all. She went in her office and came out a minute later and told us flight ops had put Comello on a cargo plane off the ship.”
“Maybe they’re turning into ghosts,” Terrance suggested.
“That’s what people are saying. I mean come on,” Kate said. “Everybody knew two bodies already disappeared, so they had an eye on the morgue. Nobody took Comello’s body. Sternz is hiding something.”
CHAPTER THIRTEEN – Day 2
Darnell Ratcomb climbed carefully down the anchor chain into darkness. As he stepped off onto the teetering plywood scrap at the bottom, a match sparked into flame. Danny Jenks lit a candle. Without a word, they pulled their hoods on, joined hands around the candle and began chanting.
“What the hell?” Jenks tore his hood off and looked at the bumps, scratched raw, on Darnell’s hands. “That shit better not be contagious.” Jenks wiped his hands on his pants.
“It’s itchy as hell.” Darnell reached over and grabbed Jenks’ hands.
“You better see a doctor,” Jenks said. “That shit looks like poison ivy.”
They began chanting and right away Jenks entered a variant state.
Green serpent-like kelp twisted on the ocean’s surface. White foam sizzled on the surging waves. Below, in greenish murk, orange and black striped creatures swam up from the abyss.
“Reveal secrets of the netherworld, almighty Satan.” Jenks vision penetrated the murky water.
An orange and black fish the size of a refrigerator darted past—a yellow eye as big as a bowling ball glowed in its profile. Another shot by and another and dozens more in a swarm of orange and black stripes as vibrant as Bengal Tigers sliding by with troubled ease. Thousands of them moved in the same direction, their orange and black sides flickering in shafts of sunlight penetrating from the surface.
“Tigerfish,” Jenks whispered.
He marveled at one. It was massive with pulsating lips that opened to reveal jagged teeth set in a powerful jaw—clearly capable of taking off his leg in one bite. That thought scared him, so he chanted for protection, and his vision shifted, revealing frothy whitecaps sizzling on the ocean’s rolling surface. Small tigerfish skipped across the waves. Larger ones slid quickly through the depths. The sun was down and Jenks saw the lights of a ship twinkling in the distance. He recognized the Nimitz’s flight deck and the towering superstructure. A half-moon glowed against a backdrop of sparkling stars.
He found himself inside the ship walking through a deserted living compartment.
He opened the curtains on one bunk after another but found them all empty. He ran along the passageway, opening and closing doors, and found himself alone. He climbed a ladder and headed toward the anchor chain locker to see if he could spy on himself and Darnell. He imagined meeting himself inside his own satanic ritual, and realized that would be a total mind fuck.
He pushed in behind the anchor chain locker, expecting to see the little hatch, but instead saw a metal door with the words DEAD CREW stenciled on it.
“What’s the dead crew?” he wondered aloud.
Grabbing the doorknob without hesitation, he pushed inside, where he found a cramped, fluorescent-lit compartment with a black floor. Small square doors covered one wall. He grabbed a handle and pulled, revealing a long empty drawer. “A morgue,” he whispered, slamming the drawer shut and yanking open the next. His anticipation rose at the possibility of seeing a corpse, but disappointment followed as he found each drawer empty. The last drawer wouldn’t open. He pulled and pulled. He even braced one foot against the wall, grabbed with both hands and yanked as hard as he could. Finally, he stopped and leaned in close to examine the latch. That’s when he heard something rustling. He pressed his ear to the cool, shiny metal.
A dog barked from inside the drawer.
“What the fuck?”
He rapped his knuckles on the drawer and the dog yelped.
He rapped harder and the dog barked louder. It scratched furiously, as if trying to dig through. He stepped back, wondering if the agitated mutt would bite him if it escaped.
A loud bang from inside as it crashed against the door. A dent appeared on the outside. Another crash and a piece of the metal latch clattered on the floor.
A sudden ache in his wrist made Jenks wonder if he’d pounded the door too hard. He glanced at his sleeve, careful not to take his eyes off the drawer, and saw the fabric turning black. A curl of smoke told him his arm was too close to the candle and his sleeve was about to ignite. This was the most realistic trip he’d ever had.
Violently, the thing in there smashed again. The latch rattled loose and the drawer opened a crack.
That mutt’s guarding the gateway to hell, he realized. A lean hound with sharp claws, he imagined a choke chain around its neck and teeth capped with silver tips.
“Bad ass,” he whispered.
Pain flared in his wrist. The scene flickered.
“Lord and Master protect me.” The vision came back into focus. Greasy smoke curled from his sleeve and a red blister formed on his wrist. He knew he might burst into flames if he didn’t break away now.
“Bring the fire, Satan!” he squealed as flame seared his arm.
A snarling snout, covered in short black fur, snapped at him through the narrow opening. He grabbed the edge of the door and pulled. “Come on you fucking mutt,” he shouted. He didn’t care if it devoured him, he wanted to go down into hell and meet the man. But the pain in his wrist and the greasy smoke and burnt hair made the vision flicker. He pulled with all his strength.
In that final second before Darnell Ratcomb slapped him across the face, the metal handle broke off and Jenks dropped it clanging to the floor. The drawer burst open with a BANG. Flames rose from his sleeve. A salacious grin stretched his rat-thin jaw.
A man with saggy jowls like a bulldog lunged out of the drawer and came right at him. Jenks froze in amazement. The dog-faced man burst from the morgue drawer, snapping its sharp teeth in his face.
* * *
“Crazy shit,” Darnell Ratcomb said after Jenks told him about seeing the words DEAD CREW on the door and the dog-faced old guy in a locked drawer.
“That mutt was guarding the entrance to hell,” Jenks blurted.
But Darnell was too busy scratching the rash on this arm.
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CHAPTER FOURTEEN – Day 2
Captain Brandt brushed Nikki’s forearm when he leaned over her desk to sign papers. He summoned her to his office several times to explain trivial payroll corrections. He called her around behind his desk, where she had to lean over to see as he pointed to a spreadsheet.
Within a week, he appointed her as his personal assistant. He planned to put her on top of something that required special attention.
One evening he called her to his office and while working late, squeezed in behind his desk, the sexual tension was practically crackling.
She knew it was inappropriate but she didn’t care. Life aboard ship was boring and she was hornier than she’d ever been. A minute after he put his hands on her hips and planted a wet kiss on her lips, she unhitched his pants and watched them drop down around his ankles. The delight she experienced at the sight of his cock popping out of his boxers, right in her face, almost overwhelmed her. And, when he sat back in his cushy office chair and she climb on top of him, a warm buzz hummed in her loins, shot through her belly, swirled around her heart, and grounded out like a hot electric spark in her brain. Nikki loved the feeling of Captain Brandt’s power pulsing deep inside her. The first few times with him, a new, exciting energy filled her. After each of their special meetings, her skin glowed as she wobbled out of his office.
He called her to his office six times in two-weeks, and each time her crush on him charged with greater intensity. Memories of their bold escapades kept her awake at night in her bunk. And when she dozed off, she dreamed they were driving along a mountain road in a red convertible. They stopped for a picnic of wine and sandwiches on a grassy hillside. While sitting at her desk during boring days, she imagined him in dress uniform, leading her in a waltz at a grand reception. A flowing white dress swirled about her as she floated across a parquet floor, beneath crystal chandeliers, surrounded by a crowd of smiling friends and relatives. She awoke in her bunk at night acutely aware that he was an officer and she was enlisted and that made their tryst illegal; a clear-cut violation of naval regulations and they both knew it.
One afternoon she entered his office, and said, “Hi, Sam,” using his name for the first time, but he pressed a finger to her lips.
He pulled her behind his desk, sat in his swivel chair and quickly unbuckled her belt. Moments later, her panties were around her ankles and he had her bent forward over his desk. She grabbed the hard wooden edge, bit her lower lip and groaned as he tried to penetrate her, but she was too dry and he was too rough. She wanted to talk to him, make eye contact, run her hands over his chest and kiss him on the mouth. She knew that would get them both in the mood.
Instead, he sat down, spread her vagina and poked a few times with a wet finger. Then he stood up and forced himself in. She reached around and grabbed the front of his shirt, but he put a big hand on the back of her head and forced her face down on his wooden desk.
In a husky whisper he said, “Don’t make a sound.”
The violated feeling dissipated after a series of long, steady strokes that slowly built toward an explosive moment. He held her hips at a perfect angle and probed her exquisitely until they both came.
Afterwards, she realized she’d never felt such a wonderful sensation before.
They might have both screamed when they came together, but Brandt couldn’t be sure. He reminded himself to stuff something in her mouth, her wadded-up panties perhaps, and bite his tongue next time. He certainly didn’t want anyone who happened to be walking by in the passageway outside to overhear cries of unbridled pleasure.
He uncoupled and zipped his pants, fastened his belt and sat in his cushioned chair with a contented sigh.
She turned around while tucking in her shirt and fastening her pants and looked him in the eye. She opened her mouth, but he shushed her again. “Don’t ruin it,” he said.
“You’re dirty.” She placed a hand on his brawny forearm, stroking him there, hoping for some lighthearted conversation.
“Go back to work,” he said, exhausted, “I’ll call you some time … soon.”
* * *
She squirmed in her chair until their sex dried on her thighs and boredom took over again. No breeze, no sunshine, no trees, no sitting on the back step at her mom’s house petting the cats, no talking on the phone, no cruising to the mall with friends in her little car. Every few minutes she looked at the clock on the gray-painted wall.
Her heart sang at the thought of a relationship, but then it ached because she knew he was using her. Yet she kept glancing at her phone, wanting it to ring, wanting to hear his voice beckoning her to his office.
Hour after agonizing hour she sat at her little desk doing data entry. During long minutes, she strengthened herself with contentious thoughts, like not answering the phone if he called. She contrived to make him jealous. That’s it, I’ll play around with someone, she told herself. Thousands of guys on this ship will kiss my ass, and I won’t even have to give them the time of day. But when anger and resentment saturated her, the pendulum swung the other way and she glanced at the phone, yearning to hear it chirp and see his name on her caller-ID. Oh, if it rang right now she’d snatch it up. Deep in her heart, she knew she’d run to his office if only he’d call.
* * *
Her phone finally rang and she saw his name on the caller-ID. Her heart leaped and she hoped he loved her, but even if he didn’t a few minutes in his office was better than data entry.
Her hand went for the receiver, but she let it ring two times before answering with her most perky hello.
“I need you in my stateroom,” he said.
“Your stateroom?” Nikki asked, surprised. “What if someone sees me go in there?”
“No one will see you,” his tone impatient. “I’ve got a splitting headache.”
“Poor baby.” Nikki bit her lower lip and curled a lock of hair around a finger. She shifted nervously on her chair as the ship heeled into a steep turn. She let silence stretch for several seconds between them while thinking about how she might make his headache go away, all the while stalling so it wouldn’t be too obvious that she really wanted to go to his stateroom.
“Whatever you’re doing can wait,” he coaxed her.
“I’m writing your monthly report,” she said. “It’s due tomorrow.”
“Just put a new cover on last month’s report,” he growled. “I never read the damn thing anyway.”
“What if rumors start?” She surprised herself.
“Don’t worry,” he assured her, “this is top-secret.”
“What about Sternz barging in on us yesterday?”
“She has enough problems,” Brandt said. “Pretend you’re going to lunch,” he whispered, “and head over there.”
“Oh my,” Nikki said, realizing that this would raise their involvement to a new level. She wanted to win him over into a respectful relationship, but a devilish mix of caution and excitement swirled in her heart. He’d have a bed in there. It would be like the first time at a new boyfriend’s apartment.
“You know you want to, Nikki,” he prodded after hearing the exquisite tremor of fear and desire in her voice when she’d said “oh my” through the phone—that playful coo had deflated the pressure of his headache just a little.
CHAPTER FIFTEEN – Day 2
Lieutenant Gould held two envelopes in his right hand as he made a beeline to his stateroom. The letters, from his pregnant wife, made his heart ache to be with her, to see her, to place his hands gently on the bulging baby bump swelling on her lovely belly. He glanced at the letter with the older postmark and noticed the curly cursive strokes. He sniffed the paper and swore he could smell her perfume. He quickened his steps in anticipation of seeing the photos that he could feel inside. He adored everything about his wife, Sarah, but she was in Delaware on the opposite side of the planet, living with her parents while he made this endless cruise. All he had now were her written sentiments and the pictures she’d sent. He dashed along the passageway, resisting the temptation to open the letters. He wanted to lie in his bunk and savor them in private.
As he walked along, his attention went to the coil-bound report in his other hand. His boss—the commanding officer of the Stinger Squadron—Commander Aronson had told him to read it. He glanced at the cover and remembered Aronson saying it contained proof that someone had sabotaged several of their aircraft, but the letters from his wife would come first.
He glanced at her name, Mrs. Sarah Gould, and the memory of her in a beautiful white wedding dress popped into his head. And there she was, holding her father’s arm gliding down the aisle. Her radiant beauty blew him away. Her delicate jaw, perfect nose between pronounced cheekbones and her cool hazel eyes—she was a gift from heaven.
He hadn’t seen her since leaving Pearl Harbor five months ago. She’d flown there to meet him and they spent two nights in a hotel overlooking Waikiki, ordering room service and only leaving to lie on the beach in the afternoon and dance in the hotel disco each night.
Sara swore she was still taking birth control even though they hadn’t seen each other for months. But, pill or not, they conceived a child in that hotel room. He figured that she hadn’t really been taking her pill, or his super-high sperm count—after so many weeks at sea—overpowered the pill’s active ingredients. Either way, they hadn’t planned to have a baby for a few years, but when he heard Sarah was pregnant joy overflowed from his heart.
He wrote to her every day even though no mail came or went while Fox kept the ship cloaked behind the invisibility shield.
* * *
When he got to his stateroom, Gould tossed the report aside and laid down to read the letters. A quick glance at the postmarks and he opened the oldest. It was the first he’d heard from her since the cloaking exercise began. Sara wrote about how much she missed him, how her pregnancy was going. Her boobs were getting larger and her complexion glowed. Would he be home when she went into labor? The doctor said it was a boy.
Gould smiled. Yes! A little man!
The stateroom door opened and Lieutenant Rhodes, Gould’s roommate, stepped into the compartment. With the exception of a handlebar mustache curling across his cheeks, Rhodes looked a lot like Gould, the composite Navy fighter pilot—a handsome jock in a green flight suit.
“It’s a boy,” Gould blurted.
“I thought she wasn’t due for another few months,” Rhodes said, his mustache bouncing on his cheeks.
“The doctor did an ultrasound and saw his pecker.”
“Got a name picked out?” Rhodes asked, absentmindedly curling his mustache.
“I don’t know.” Gould rolled onto his back, wet-eyed with the news. A son!
* * *
Gould fantasized about being with Sara for his son’s birth. Since she got pregnant in Hawaii, he knew she was almost four months along. That meant she had several months until she went into labor. He had no idea where he’d be. This cruise, unlike other’s he’d made, was open ended. They’d stay out until Fox proved his cloaking system worked. If only the ship would pull into Singapore or Hong Kong, he could hop a flight home. But that wasn’t going to happen, so Gould resigned himself to the fact that he would not be there when Sara went into labor.
Damn this cloaking system!
“I have three kids but I only saw one pop out,” he recalled his boss, Commander Aronson, explaining the facts of Navy life. “Just be glad you were there when your wife got pregnant, Gould.”
Yet he still imagined catapulting off the flight deck and flying all the way around the world to be there when his son was born.
* * *
The second letter didn’t smell like perfume. He pulled out a single sheet of paper and a jolt of panic twisted his heart when he saw the photo.
The alcohol-flushed face was a little blurry, but unmistakably his. The girl was 13, maybe 14. His tongue flicked at her nipple. She cradled his Ivy League head in her skinny, brown arms; crumpled pesos clenched in a delicate hand. Her long nails, painted brilliant pink. His hairy chest pressed against her smooth brown tummy. Beneath her pastel eyelids, a forced party-girl smile. At the bottom of the photo, his lecherous hands clutched her bare, adolescent buttocks.
—months ago, the ship visited the Philippines, right before they started the 93-day cloaking exercise. He and several other Stinger pilots went out drinking at a bar in Manila, and he got so shitfaced that he woke up with two naked girls on a dirty futon the next morning. A lumberjack smashed at the inside of his skull with a dull ax.
When he returned to the ship, the guys chided him. “Gould, you wild man,” they’d hooted. “Your little girlfriends were cute.” and “You’re out of hand, Gould. Dancing on the bar with that chick’s panties in your teeth! I thought I knew you, brother!” He remembered those stunts, but he couldn’t remember what happened afterwards. Five or six hours remained unaccounted for—locked in a booze-induced stupor— somewhere between playing around with the strippers at the bar and waking up with them.
He’d regained consciousness scratching itchy mosquito bites—shit, mosquito welts were more like it—and stumbling around looking for his clothes. His anus was sore—damn, how drunk was I, he remembered thinking at the time.
He’d had a few nights like that over the years, but the memories always came back like post cards from his subconscious.
But not that night—he figured it was never coming back.
How wrong he’d been, because that night was back on this glossy photo in the mail from his wife. Dread punched a hole through his gut and everything good drained away. He read the letter and winced as his thoughts completed the circuit—Some asshole, probably an enlisted guy, snapped this photo and sent it to Sara. With proof of my cheating, she got an abortion and filed for divorce.
The photo prompted a vague memory of a camera flash, and he tried to recall which of his crooked shipmates had snapped the picture and sent it to his wife.
Ex-wife—the word burned as he rolled onto his stomach, buried his face in his pillow for fear that Rhodes would see the tears bursting from his eyes.
CHAPTER SIXTEEN – Day 2
Popping the clasps on his steamer chest and lifting the lid, Brandt hoped Nikki would enjoy what he had in store. He turned to her and smiled.
She sat on the edge of his perfectly made bunk, nervously running her fingers along the scratchy wool blanket. She’d expected a luxury cabin or a bachelor pad, not this gray box with a narrow mattress, a chair and a desk folding down from the wall.
The sparkle in his eyes and his up-to-no-good smirk made him look like a sneaky boy about to prank her. The shift away from his stern demeanor soothed her. She tried to peek around him to see what he was hiding.
“I want to share my toys with you,” he whispered.
Nikki moved towards him, but his broad chest blocked her view. He usually grabbed her roughly and kissed her forcefully, but this time he wrapped her gently in his arms and hugged her. She threw her arms around his neck and they kissed.
“What’s in there, Captain Brandt?” she asked.
“Call me Sam,” he said.
“Okay, Sam, what’s in there?”
He stepped aside.
She looked into the steamer chest with a mix of trepidation and curiosity.
Silver tacks held a black velvet lining in place. Her eyes roved over a tangle of padded handcuffs, rubber items like kitchen utensils with metal studs and leather fringes. A riding crop and an apparatus with chrome rings and black straps. Several whips. An impossibly long, thick purple dildo with fake testicles. Several tubes of lubricant and a bondage mask with a golf-ball sized gag. A lot of clips—like the clothespins her mom used to hang wash on the line—she figured he must like those, whatever they were. A sexy pair of black leather gloves caught her eye. A black rope snaked through the tangle.
She almost said no but instead asked, “What if it hurts and I want to stop?”
“Before we start, we tell each other a safe word,” he said.
“What’s a safe word?”
“It’s a word you say when you want to stop.”
“It’s that simple?” she asked, wondering what the point of torture was if all the victim had to do was say one word to make it stop.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m making a sacred promise to stop when you say your safe word.”
Their eyes met.
“A sacred promise?” she asked.
“Yes,” he agreed, “a sacred promise.”
“My safe word is love,” she told him.
“I promise to stop when I hear you say love,” he assured her.
“What’s your safe word?” she asked.
“Fire,” he said.
“Ok, when you say fire, I’ll stop.” A wave of tension fell away. She fiddled with one of the clamps, grimaced and asked, “What’s this for?”
Brandt took it and slid the little ring up and down. The clamp opened and closed. “It’s a pleasure clamp,” he said. “We put them on each other and it creates a tingling sensation.”
“I don’t want it on my boobs,” She forced a laugh.
“It can go anywhere you want, or nowhere,” his voice oozed patience.
Nikki picked up a latex bustier, dropped it and wondered how many other girls he’d used this stuff with. She picked up a mask that would cover the eyes. Setting it aside, she found a triangle of chrome-studded leather. Stretching its elastic waistband, she shot it at him. “Put this on,” she ordered playfully.
Brandt stepped into his little bathroom and closed the door.
Nikki stripped quickly and squeezed into the bustier. The tight fit flattened her breasts. She grabbed a whip and struck a pose.
When he stepped out, wearing only the banana hammock, she cracked the whip, and sternly said, “Get over here.”
He knelt on the deck in the middle of the compartment. She cracked the whip again, louder than expected.
“What should I do?” he asked.
“I’m thinking,” she replied.
“I could be your slave,” he suggested. “Try ordering me around and punish or reward me depending on how I do.”
“You’d go for that?” She cracked the whip then wondered if someone walking by outside could hear.
“That’s the idea,” he said. “You train me to please you.”
She snapped the whip hard. It lashed the back of his leg. He groaned—half pain, half pleasure. “Oh no,” she cringed, bent over, touched the rising welt softly. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re not supposed to apologize.”
“But I didn’t mean to do it.”
“Let’s just play,” he said. “I’m the slave, you’re the master.”
“It feels kind of stupid,” she said.
“It’s a game.”
“Then I can say I’m sorry and you can’t argue.”
“The master’s always right.”
“Then I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you with the whip.”
“Try the paddle,” he suggested.
She tossed the whip on the bed and grabbed a foot-long crop with a thick leather flap at the end. She whacked her hand a couple times and found the leather surprisingly soft and supple.
“I want a foot massage,” she said as she reclined in his cushioned chair and crossed her legs.
He rubbed her foot with both hands.
She pressed her toes under his chin and made him look her in the eyes. “You should offer to use lotion,” she said.
He went into the bathroom and returned with a bottle of moisturizer.
“You’re lucky you have that,” she said playfully.
“Anything you desire, my mistress.”
Her entire body went limp as he slid both thumbs along her arch. Tension melted from the backs of her leg, left her limp in his chair.
“What’s a good pet name for me?” she whispered.
“Anything you like.”
She put the whip handle under his chin and made him look at her. “You should make suggestions.”
“Dominatrix,” Brandt worked lotion into the dry skin around her heel. “Queen, bitch goddess, latex lover?”
“I’ll need a lot of practice before I’m a bitch goddess, don’t you think?”
“We’ll have several more months at sea for you to practice.”
After he rubbed both feet, she asked, “What else should I make you do?”
“Anything you like.”
“You’re a bad boy,” she said sternly. “When I ask a question, you make suggestion, understand?” She leaned forward, got face to face with him. “Now, what else can I have you do?”
His eyes sparkled and that mischievous smirk curled the corner of his lips. “Anything you like,” he said defiantly.
“You, disobedient man!” She rummaged through the toy chest, thought about lubing up the dildo, doing him from behind. Instead, she grabbed a paddle that looked like a spatula. “You better suggest something.”
“Yes, mistress,” he said submissively raising his bottom.
She whacked twice as hard as she could. “Suggestions!” she demanded. “I said make suggestions.”
“Anything you like, bitch goddess.”
She paddled his buttocks until they glowed a rosy red. “You enjoy that, you freak!”
He purred—his headache obviously gone.
“Then call me goddess from now on,” she growled. Something inside let go as she unleashed a volley of hard smacks.
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN – Day 2
With a cardboard box under his arm, Terrance entered the Stinger living compartment. It was the middle of the day so the compartment was empty. He went straight to the garbage and pulled out an empty 7up can. He set it on the floor just inside the closed door. This way, if he heard the can knocking across the deck, he’d know someone had entered the compartment. He walked quickly to his cubicle and tore open the package that had just arrived from his brother back in Nebraska. It was the first package he’d received in over three months. He looked at the new merchandise and thought about all the cash he was going to make when he sold it—six cartons of Marlboro, three of Newport and 25 cans of Skoal. As he wrote numbers in his little notebook, he heard the pop can clatter across the deck. He tossed the goods into his locker, closed it and slid back against the bulkhead.
Peeking over the lockers, Terrance saw Danny Jenks creeping along the narrow passageway between the cubicles. Jenks breathed heavily, nervously. He smirked. His eyes shifted comically from side to side. Terrance watched him remove a shiny silver ring from his pocket and slip it onto his right hand. Jenks scratched at a red rash on his forearms and cursed under his breath.
Jenks entered a cubicle and slid the curtain open on the middle bunk. Petty Officer Trueblood lay there with his head resting peacefully on a pillow. For a second Jenks studied Trueblood’s face, and then he cocked his right elbow back and drove his fist into Trueblood’s nose.
Jenks ran past but stopped and jumped back. He sneered at Terrance and then he bolted from the compartment.
“Get back here you bastard,” Trueblood hollered as he rolled out of his bunk and stumbled after his assailant.
But Jenks was gone.
Trueblood saw Terrance. “Who was it, McDaniels? I know you saw ‘em!”
Blood dripped from Trueblood’s nose and splattered on the green Formica in quarter-sized red spots. Terrance grabbed a white towel and held it to Trueblood’s broken face.
“I didn’t see anybody,” Terrance said.
“You’re lying, McDaniels. Either that or you hit me.”
* * *
Commander Aronson and Lieutenant Gould sat in cushioned chairs in the Stinger ready room. Terrance wished they would offer him a seat, but that wasn’t going to happen.
They kept asking him, “Who hit Trueblood?”
“I didn’t see anybody,” Terrance lied.
He’d lied to the MAA when they came to take a report.
He lied to Crenki before helping Trueblood down to the medical department, and he lied again to the corpsman who put six stitches in Trueblood’s upper lip.
Trueblood was sitting in one of the cushioned chairs. Terrance thought about stepping over and sitting in one of the empty seats, but decided not to, because he really wanted to beat feet out of there as soon as possible.
A bruise like raw meat framed Trueblood’s eyeballs. Rolled up, bloody gauze stuck from his nostrils.
“How did you not see the person who did this?” Gould asked.
“I heard somebody run out of the compartment,” Terrance explained, “but I didn’t get a look at ‘em.” He wished they would quit asking him so he wouldn’t have to lie again. An eternity passed, and finally Terrance asked, “May I be dismissed?”
“Go on and get out of here,” Aronson growled.
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN – Day 3
“I received a message from the Pentagon.” Captain Fox glanced at the team around his conference room table and caught Mr. Bradmore’s eye.
They exchanged a private nod.
Fox took a slip of paper from his breast pocket, read silently, then paraphrased, “The Hayward may only access cameras on US satellites through unauthorized means.” He looked around and said, “The rationale is that any foe might do the same.”
“So,” Bradmore said, “the Hayward can hack US satellites to hunt for us.”
“Correct,” Fox replied.
Several at the table wanted to jump into the conversation but held back, allowing Bradmore to lead the challenge.
“The last time we met I asked Mr. Bradmore to lead this team in the development of a risk mitigation plan.”
“We met twice and both times the team got stuck on the same issue,” Bradmore said.
“And that is,” Fox asked.
“With a holograph projector running atop the superstructure and a mirage projector running on the fantail, a dangerous level of static will build up around the ship,” Bradmore’s voice rose to a mild yet respectful challenge.
“And the concern is?” Fox sounded impatient.
“The static will magnify the intensity of a storm,” Bradmore said. “Of particular concern are rough seas, extreme winds and high voltage lightning.”
“Don’t allow fear of static electricity in the air to influence your decisions.” Fox played the bad cop in keeping with their plan to build the team’s trust in Bradmore.
“Sir,” Bradmore forged ahead. “The Bristol Cove had a mirage projector and we all know what happened to her.”
“Do we?” Fox asked. “Have rumors revealed what became of the Bristol Cove?”
“The Bristol Cove had the same cloaking system we have,” Bradmore’s dark eyes hot with challenge, “and she had a mirage projector on her stern to cover her wake. We know the Hayward was hunting for her on the South Pacific. And we learned from that exercise that combining a holograph projector atop the superstructure with a mirage projector on the stern will cause dangerous levels of static to build up around our ship.”
Fox and Bradmore both knew that everyone at the table shared this concern, and that the best thing was to get it out in the open and deal with it. They’d contrived this little ruse to do just that, and in the process, they’d solidify Bradmore’s position as the team leader.
“I heard the Bristol Cove’s mirage projector threw off so much static it didn’t just attract an electrical storm,” a technician interjected, “it pulled lightning down from a clear blue sky.”
“Dozens of sea spouts,” another technician added, “and gale force winds.”
“Thousands of lightning bolts.”
The investigation remained open. The few known facts remained classified. When the Navy’s top brass recruited Fox to put the TenRay project back on track, he demanded full access to the secret report.
“Some believe the static electricity ran so high,” one of the recon’ pilots said, “it caused hundreds of lightning bolts to strike her simultaneously.”
Bradmore glanced at Fox and saw a barely perceptible nod. “The speculation is that the Bristol Cove’s crew was electrocuted to death,” Bradmore said.
“Speculation,” Fox said with thinly concealed contempt.
“The fact that the Bristol Cove is missing,” Bradmore said, “is a warning to us.”
“I heard huge waves swamped her,” a technician chimed in.
“That makes no sense,” another of the recon’ pilots countered. “If she sank, there’d have been a radiation leak that would of led search and rescue divers to the wreck.”
“At least debris,” another tech added.
“It’s all classified,” the pilot said. “Without an official report, like the captain says, this is speculation.”
“The Bristol Cove could still be out there,” the technician said, “hidden by her cloaking system, sailing with a dead crew.”
“Captain,” Bradmore said, right on cue, “is there any truth to the rumor that the pentagon has an emergency response plan in case the Bristol Cove reappears?”
“It’s true,” Fox said to everyone’s surprise. “The Bristol Cove could be out there and she could run aground or collide with another ship or worse I suppose, her reactors could melt down. On the other hand, her autopilot could keep her running even with her crew electrocuted to death. She could remain invisible for years.”
All eyes were on Fox.
They knew he had the classified file, and were amazed to hear him revealing its contents.
“Her mechanical systems will eventually break down, but her reactors could run for decades.” Fox paused, savoring his ability to captivate these seafaring men and women. “But as long as salvage subs are searching for wreckage speculation will continue.” Fox shared these secrets in order to win them over. He’d decided that they had a need to know. What he neglected to tell them was that the Pentagon brass refused to call the TenRay cloaking system a failure even after the Bristol Cove’s disappearance, because a debacle of that magnitude would force several admirals into early retirement. Rather than kill the TenRay project, they doubled its budget and assigned him to make it a success.
Now he had his team’s attention. He looked around and made eye contact with each pilot, meteorologist, engineer and technician sitting at the table.
“The Bristol Cove,” he explained, “sailed with a crew of less than a hundred when she should have had three-hundred. Being that shorthanded could have led to a catastrophe totally unrelated to the cloaking system.”
Bradmore scowled because he knew the mirage projector was dangerous. It would generate high levels of static that could pull lightening out of the sky. But he relaxed his brow and let his gaze wander around the table. Along with steak and lobster, he’d swallowed his resistance and resigned himself to the fact that Fox would drive them all toward perilous extremes in his effort to make the cloaking system a success. Bradmore sipped his lukewarm coffee and fondly recalled the vision he’d had when Fox offered him a job at TenRay. He saw his wife and kids splashing happily in a swimming pool, and the flowering shrubs surrounding the house with the view of San Diego and the ocean. All he had to do was make the TenRay cloaking system a success.
“We must remember the Hayward closed in on the Bristol Cove in the corner of a restricted operating area in a remote section of the South Pacific,” Fox had explained to Bradmore over one of several dinners they’d eaten together, just as he explained to the team now. “When that storm came up, I believe she ran off course, and that explains why they have not found the wreck yet.”
As he spoke, Captain Fox stood and threw his shoulders back. He hardened his eyes and said, “We are testing a revolutionary technology.”
As if on cue, his marines snapped to attention.
“The most effective way to evade the Hayward,” Bradmore said supportively, “is to install a mirage projector to cover our wake.”
“Absolutely correct,” Fox said. “So gather this team and develop a mitigation plan.”
Bradmore saw that their ruse had eased the team’s concerns. He said, “We’ll meet later today and get on with our risk planning.”
“Very well then,” Fox concluded the meeting. “At this time we’ll replenish supplies and stand by for orders to reactivate the cloaking system.”
CHAPTER NINETEEN – Day 3
Darkness spread across the ocean. A warm, salty breeze buffeted the ship’s steep sides. Silver starlight twinkled above the drifting clouds. In the catwalk, a match lit and a cigarette began to glow.
“Are you crazy?” Terrance whispered. “This is a fueling station. Put that out so we don’t get blown up.”
“Did you see me hit him?” Jenks smiled as he took a drag.
Terrance wanted to call him a coward for hitting Trueblood in his sleep, but didn’t want to complicate the fact that Jenks owed him money. “I told Crenki, the MAA, Commander Aronson and Lieutenant Gould I didn’t see anything.”
Jenks took another drag. “Did you know Gould’s in charge of the nuke loading team? Him and Trueblood are tight.”
“That why you hit him?”
“That’s between me and him,” Jenks said.
“No it ain’t, because he don’t know you hit him,” Terrance was quick to point out.
“You gonna tell him?”
“Look, Jenks, you’re into me for nearly five-hundred bucks.” Terrance’s irritation grew as he watched Jenks’ cigarette glow again. “Start paying me and I got nothing to say to anyone.”
“You threatening me?”
“Just pay up. That’s what I’m telling you.”
“You’re threatening me.”
Sparks flew as Terrance’s palm flattened the cigarette against Jenks face. In an instant, he was on his back with Terrance’s knee pressing on his chest. “Half of what you owe me by next payday,” Terrance demanded, “or you’re gonna be swimming with the fish.”
Jenks shook his head, trying to get the burning ember off his cheek, but banged his forehead on a metal pipe. “You’re breaking my ribs.” He grabbed Terrance’s wrists and struggled feebly.
Terrance remembered the nasty redness on Jenks’ arms, and feeling those rash-eaten hands clutching at him almost made him let go.
“You gotta pay me back.” Terrance pinned Jenks firmly against the steel. “Do you understand?”
“Yes!” Jenks whined. “You’re hurting me.”
Terrance walked away.
Jenks muttered curses at his back.
* * *
Terrance loaded cigarettes and dipping tobacco into his laundry bag and pulled the drawstring tight. He slung it over his shoulder and left the Stinger living quarters to make his evening rounds.
First he went forward and then outboard. He entered the deckape living quarters. They worked irregular shifts, so he never knew who might be around. A few guys sat in folding chairs, staring at a TV. Terrance waited a moment before walking down a narrow aisle toward the back door. Sure enough, they followed.
He loosened the drawstring and reached into the bag.
The first guy said, “Marlboro,” and handed Terrance a twenty.
He gave the guy one pack. No change.
“Two cans of Skoal,” said the next man.
Terrance pocketed a fifty.
He sold a few more items before disappearing out of the compartment and down a ladder. Content with their favorite brands, his customers didn’t care where he came from or where he went.
Like an ice-cream man cruising suburban neighborhoods, Terrance walked his route inside the labyrinth of compartments and passageways. He hit the deck division and the aft galley, the Prowler squadron’s line shack. He knocked at officers’ staterooms and charged them double. Officers earn more money, he figured, so they pay extra.
He wasn’t doing anything wrong, he reasoned, just demonstrating entrepreneurial initiative, something the military sorely lacked. When he first came aboard the Nimitz a few years earlier, he heard that the store ran out of Marlboros, Newports, Copenhagen and Skoal after a few weeks at sea. So, he wrote to his brother and asked him to send a couple hundred dollars’ worth of cigarettes and chew. Several weeks later, a care package arrived and Terrance started selling. Since then, he’d had a steady stream of packages from his brother—right up until the cloaking system shut his business down. But now with the 93-day exercise over, he was back on his sales route.
He figured out that he had to enter a living compartment or office and sell a few items quickly, and never do business in the passageways because roving MAA could walk up at any moment. He reduced risk by selling in the shadows and slipping away.
Over time, he accumulated a large bankroll, and once his shipmates found out he had excess cash, they started asking him for loans. It was their idea to pay high interest—not his.
CHAPTER TWENTY – Day 3
“Now I make the rules,” Brandt said as he yanked Nikki’s wrists behind her back and clamped on handcuffs.
“Hey, you said we made the rules together.” She forced a chuckle, tried to keep it playful.
“The first rule is shut the fuck up!” He whacked her ass with a riding crop.
“Ouch!” She wobbled on too-high stilettos he forced her to wear. She banged her shin on the edge of his bunk.
“No talking.” He cracked the back of her thighs.
“You’re too strict.” Fear swirled in her belly.
“On your knees!” He fastened a collar around her neck.
She stumbled on the stupid heels. It was impossible to get to her knees gracefully with her hands cuffed behind her back. She was about to insist that he remove the cuffs when he roughly wrapped a leather mask around her face. A hard plastic ball forced into her mouth. She bit her lip. He fastened Velcro straps on the back of her head.
She pleaded for him to stop, but her words were garbled nonsense around the gag.
He shoved her down and she landed with her hands stuck behind her back. Pain jolted through both arms as the cuffs cut into her wrists.
Through slits in the mask, she could barely see him grabbing a handful of those metal clamps.
“What are you doing?” her words indecipherable.
His sinister laughter cut like razors in her ears.
A clamp pinched on the soft side of her breast.
“LOVE,” she shouted, her tongue striking the gag. “Love! Love!” she whimpered. “Love!”
“What?” he asked, laughter cackling from his throat. “I can’t understand a word you’re saying.”
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE – Day 3
The handlebar mustache bounced on Lieutenant Rhodes’ cheeks as he delivered the flight plan. “Wooden tank targets are set up on the south shore of an uninhabited island,” Rhodes explained, “and each pilot will make three passes, taking out one target on each pass.”
Lieutenant Gould, consumed with grief over the news of his wife’s abortion, listened to Rhodes review the techniques for guiding a missile to the target with the Hornet’s joystick. He half-heartedly scribbled notes on a kneeboard Velcro-strapped to his right thigh.
When he arrived on the flight deck, Gould looked at the Stinger logo on his aircraft’s tail. A vengeful Hornet with its wings swept back, its abdomen slung forward, a sharp stinger aimed at unseen prey.
Gould imagined the stinger smashing his helmet, piercing his skull and pumping venom into his brain. He imagined a painful purple welt on his scalp as the damn insect flew away. That’s how it felt to think about his wife. His EX-WIFE!
He went through the preflight checks with Danny Jenks leading the way. Gould followed thoughtlessly, while Jenks scratched the backs of his arms and mumbled the whole time.
A second before launching, Gould looked at the catapult crew and realized his payload included an armed laser-guided missile. In a woefully ineffective attempt to set aside his guilt and misery, he gripped the control stick. The catapult shuttle tugged at the launch bar as he eased the throttles forward. He glanced across the gauges and rested his helmet on the headrest. He thumbed the afterburners as the catapult engaged. Instantly, the jet accelerated to 175 miles per hour.
At 20,000 feet, Gould lowered his aircraft into the echelon formation outboard of Rhodes. He couldn’t shake the image of his wife’s face, her crying eyes red with scorn.
For the thousandth time he knew his life was ruined.
“Do you have a problem, Gould?” Rhodes’ voice in his helmet.
He saw a white ring of sand surrounding emerald palm trees and fuzzy hills far below. Gould snapped back, tried to stop brooding over his broken marriage. He knew that flying with emotional junk clogging his thoughts could get him killed.
What did Rhodes say about the targets? Were they trucks? Tents? Take out three tenks? He smiled for the first time since opening that dammed letter—fucking tenks! He’d mixed tents and tanks. “Tenks,” he chuckled.
He keyed his mic’ and said, “Ready to attack.”
“Zero niner, expedite,” Rhodes said. “Follow Gould in for the kill.”
Shit, Gould thought, I’m leading this raid and I don’t even know what I’m supposed to shoot at. Nosing into a steep dive, he figured an aggressive attack might cover for anything he did wrong. Leveling off at 300 feet above the water, he flew directly at the island. When he started north, Rhodes’ voice crackled, “South, Gould. Tanks are on the south shore.” Gould tweaked the stick, worked the rudder and flew in over the breakers. On his kneeboard, he’d written, “Vulcan, Vulcan, LG missile,” so he’d fire in that order. When the first wooden tank came into view, he backed off the throttles and nudged the stick forward. Palm trees filled his windscreen so fast it spooked him. He watched the target slip from his crosshairs, but he pulled the trigger on his Vulcan cannon anyway. A burst of bullets pruned the tops off a grove of palms, and one fell on the plywood tank.
“Nice job camouflaging the enemy, Gould.” Rhodes snickered in his headset. “Pull back and let a real attack pilot show you how it’s done.”
Gould peeled off and rejoined the formation just as Rhodes’ bullets turned a target into a blur of smoke and splinters.
On his second pass, Gould still heard his wife sobbing at the abortion clinic. His bullets cut down more palm trees. He pursed his lips and shoved his marital problems aside. Time for a third pass. Time to deliver a laser-guided missile.
After switching the heads-up display to the laser-guided missile, he saw his second tank target still standing on the beach beneath him. On impulse, he pulled back on the throttles and tweaked the trim tabs. The Hornet nosed over. Gould didn’t flinch when a fuzzy green hilltop filled the windscreen. The wooden tank appeared in his cross hairs. He squeezed the trigger, expecting a burst of bullets to spray from his Vulcan cannon and disintegrate the target into a blur of smoking wood chips. Instead, a tail of fire screeched from the missile under his port wing.
Oh, shit! He’d already switched over to the laser-guided missile.
He accelerated away from the beach as the missile burrowed into a sand dune. The fireball threw lava boulders, tree trunks and palm fronds hundreds of feet into the air. Debris sailed over the pristine white sand and splashed in the transparent blue breakers.
“What are you shooting at?” Rhodes barked. “Climb to twenty-thousand feet and circle until we complete this run.”
* * *
How can I minimize the damage? Gould wracked his brain, hastily deciding to make it look like an electrical malfunction. He pulled out his Swiss Army knife, plucked open the screwdriver and loosened four screws holding a black box in the armament panel. He broke the safety-wire on the cannon plug and removed it with a twist. He folded out the pliers and broke two copper pins out of the plug. As he pressed it back on, replaced the box and tightened the screws, he tried to formulate a story. Shit! If Rhodes saw me nose over and take aim, he’ll know I tried to fire the Vulcan cannon, not the laser-guided missile, Gould thought frantically. “Okay, no problem,” he reassured himself. “I’ll say I wanted to go back again with the missile.” Shit, this story leaks. If an inquiry is ordered, they’ll detect a pattern of mistakes. This’ll get me grounded, he thought dismally.
Red warning lights blinked in his control panel as panic took over. Shit! What did removing those pins do?
The smell of melting wires filled the cockpit, and a wisp of smoke curled up from the black box he’d sabotaged.
* * *
After Gould flew off the ship, Jenks went below for a glass of cold water. The smell of baking bread filled the galley. Jenks held his glass under the spigot and glanced at his reflection in the fountain’s shiny backsplash. Above his pimply, soot-speckled cheeks, he noticed his eyes were red and watery. For a moment, he saw a dog’s snout and saggy jowls. He stepped back so fast water splashed from his glass.
He refilled, sat down, and while guzzling cold water he considered the progress he and Darnell Ratcomb were making since ditching Grady Dutro. “Tigerfish and guard dogs,” he whispered between gulps of cold water. “We’re gonna meet the man, I know it.”
He left his dirty glass on the table and headed forward along the main deck. He climbed a ladder and cut through a living compartment, leaving footprints on a freshly waxed floor.
The smell of wet Comet and glass cleaner filled his nostrils as he slipped through the door, walked past a bank of spotless sinks and mirrors, and entered a stall at the back. He shut the latch and enjoyed the privacy for a second. He unbuckled his belt, dropped his pants and looked at the red bumps that recently appeared on his thighs. “Fuck it,” he whispered as he pulled a small tablet computer out of his vest.
As he whacked off, swiping through pictures that barely did it for him, he hoped the rash on his hands wouldn’t spread to his dick.
Afterward, he stood at the sink and rinsed his face. He looked in the mirror and noticed tangled gray hairs sprouting from his head and deep wrinkles spreading out from the corners of his eyes. One of his upper front teeth turned black and another sparkled gold. He chuckled but it sounded like chains rattling beneath his ribs. Tattoos, like the ancient mariner’s art of scrimshaw, covered his neck, and on his chest, a skeleton danced atop a treasure chest heaped with gold coins. Mesmerized, he watched the skeleton transform into a moving cartoon as it juggled pentagrams.
“What’s happening to me?” he asked, startled at the sight of a pirate staring back at him through the mirror.
He bolted out the door and climbed ladders and walked through narrow passageways. He flattened himself behind the anchor chain locker, a round steel silo that rose through several levels. He looked at the small oval door welded into the steel and remembered the vision he’d had of this exact place. It was the door with “DEAD CREW” stenciled on it. What the fuck was that about, he wondered.
He swung the door open and climbed into the dark. He stood on a narrow shelf and sensed the death-fall in front of him. With one hand, he shut the door behind him, but a pair of tattooed hands pulled it open again. An old man with translucent skin and wispy hair climbed in beside him. “Who are you?” Jenks asked, but the old man smirked in the dim light, then reached out, grabbed ahold of the anchor chain hanging in the darkness, swung himself out and climbed down.
“Are you with the dead crew?” Jenks whispered, but there was no reply.
He looked down into the darkness. The old man was gone. Jenks wondered if he had been there at all. Then he reached out and grabbed one of the anchor chain’s large, cool links. He swung out, worked the tip of his boots into the links and began climbing down, hand over hand. At the bottom, candlelight flickered.
As he descended, he heard air circulating units whirring, the propulsion plant humming and the steady hush of the ship cutting through the water.
Down below in the chain locker bottom, he heard his fellow Satanists chanting as another ritual began.
* * *
Jenks trudged along, absentmindedly looking through the catwalk grating at the water eighty feet below. A jet howled on the flight deck a few feet above him as it launched from one of the bow catapults and another screamed as it touched down in the landing area.
He’d been working on deck for several years and enjoyed the controlled violence that occurred there. The air vibrating with the fury of roaring engines, hurricane gales of exhaust, clanging catapults shooting jets into the air and a crashing whirr of the arresting cable each time a pilot slammed his aircraft to a stop in the landing area.
Jenks held the metal turnbuckles close to his chest so the chains wouldn’t slip off his shoulders. They weighed about sixty pounds, and since he’d been carrying them, his muscles were bulking up. He hung the chains on the scupper, and stood by to recover his aircraft when Gould came back.
A siren, like a fire truck trying to break through city gridlock, whooped from the deckedge loudspeakers. “ALL CRASH AND SALVAGE TEAMS REPORT TO EMERGENCY STATIONS IMMEDIATELY. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Jenks looked forward and aft, wondering if there’d been an accident or a fuel spill. Maybe there was a problem arming a weapon.
Then he saw Terrance McDaniels running toward him in the catwalk yelling excitedly, but Jenks pointed to his ear and shrugged. And then McDaniels put his mouth to Jenks’ ear protection, and said, “Gould’s got an electrical problem!”
“What are you talking about?” Jenks asked.
“Your bird, Jenks,” McDaniels shouted. “The radio said Gould has an electrical problem—”
Horrendous SHRIEKING and the WHOOSH of an explosion blotted out McDaniels’ voice. The catwalk shook so hard Jenks’ chains rattled loose from the scupper. Both men grabbed the railing. McDaniels ducked and threw an arm over his head.
The Hornet’s severed landing gear tumbled end over end across the deck, followed by the fuselage, smoke pouring from the cockpit. Its nose and the tip of one wing scraping against the deck, shooting a rooster tail of sparks. Flames erupted from the wreckage.
A tire bounced high in the air, slammed down on top of a Prowler, bounced again and splashed in the water.
“FIRE ON THE FLIGHT DECK,” the voice announced. “FIREFIGHTING TEAMS AND CRASH CREWS RESPOND. ALL HANDS TO BATTLE STATIONS. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
A crash and salvage crew in silver fireproof suits ran to the burning fuselage, discharging burst of white fog from their extinguishers.
* * *
The mangled remains of Lieutenant Gould’s Hornet sat chained to the hangar deck behind yellow and black tape printed with the words: CRASH INVESTIGATION — DO NOT CROSS.
Rumors spread and sailors came to the hangar from below like ants venturing from an anthill. Everyone wanted to see the wreckage. They leaned over the tape to glimpse inside the cockpit, but a scowling marine ordered them back. Those who did get a peek were disappointed because there was no gore. They saw only charred electrical components.
The howl of jet aircraft on the deck above filled the air all about the ship with a constant rumble. It threatened to deafen the gawkers in the hangar.
* * *
Some told stories about crashes they’d seen and fires they’d actually battled, while others retold stories they’d only heard but embellished them so well listeners felt they were at the center of the action.
One tale claimed Gould ejected several miles aft of the ship, but the raft on his ejection seat failed to inflate, so he sank like a rock before the chopper could swoop in to rescue him. The story went that even after Gould ejected, the autopilot was bringing the jet in for a perfect landing, but the ship swayed at the last second and the Hornet’s wheels hit the round down on the aft end of the flight deck. The impact caused the landing gear to break off, which sent the jet into a fiery crash.
Another rumor told how Gould rode the plane all the way in even with a fire in the cockpit, but they didn’t find his body in the wreckage because he’d burnt to ashes.
That’s how sailors behave—always telling outrageous tales to entertain each other.
Outside the Stinger Squadron, among the crew of over 5,000, not one person knew Gould personally.
The entire hubbub didn’t cause a minute’s delay in the flight schedule. After all, there were pilots who wanted flight hours, there were bombs to drop and jet fuel to burn.
* * *
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SAILORS TAKE WARNING
By Malcolm Torres ©
Copyright 2014 by MT Press
All Rights Reserved
Available in eBook and print at all major book and eBook retailers
This book is intended for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or reproduced or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please send them a link to this post, or purchase a copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the author’s hard work.
Sailors Take Warning by Malcolm Torres is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people or actual events is purely coincidental. The narrator assumes responsibility for tampering with anything that does not match the reader’s version of reality.