By Kate Bachus, illustrations by Mats Holmgren
8 November 2004
The call came the day after his mother's funeral.
He was already up at his parents' big New England home, packing boxes in a need to create order around himself that did not somehow emphasize her absence. The house phone rang, which it never did. A handful of people had the number: his uncle in Johannesburg, the Pentagon, the butcher's shop in the village.
"Vaughn, I'm sorry. I know the timing couldn't be worse." Bader sounded genuinely apologetic, although Vaughn trusted her about as far as her commission went.
The kitchen smelled of coffee and ginger, and as he leaned on the counter he discovered a Post-it note in his mother's handwriting, stuck to the cabinet door. Thursday: Chemo, Dog Bones, it said. He closed his eyes.
"The NEU lost a Cassandra class slipsub in the Barents last night," Bader continued into his silence, used to his silence. "We have a good team assembled; everyone should be ready to launch from Varde tomorrow. Can you make it up there?"
Vaughn dug in his pocket, pulled out the leather-bound notepad that was there whether or not he was on contract, and opened it. It was good timing, he thought. Good timing, to get away from the still, shadowed house, and all the decisions and arrangements. The untenable lingering resonance of what was no longer there. "Who's the team?"
"Jenkins, Coy, and the Finns are sending up a rescue specialist, Liesl Airikkala."
He stopped in the middle of his attempt to spell Airikkala's last name. "Rescue?"
"That's what they hope."
"All right." He took down the Post-it, stuck it under his notes. They were all redundant, of course: everything he'd just written and more would be sitting in the beta files she'd already dumped to his handheld, along with the contract agreement.
She spared him any uncomfortable condolences. "Thank you, Vaughn."
After he hung up he spent a few moments on the screen porch, looking out onto the bare winter trees and the spreading back lawn that sloped down to the pond. The mist had crept in and sent its trails up the hillside like wave foam up the beach: later in the day the whole property would be blanketed. He knew he was supposed to feel something here, apart from how unbearably empty the house was. He couldn't. And it had felt that way for years, even with his mother there. Now it was just somehow more final.
It took him less than fifteen minutes to tape up the boxes he'd packed and put them in the garage. Less than five minutes to set a bowl full of dry kibble outside the kitchen door for the neighborhood stray. A minute or less to turn off the one light he'd turned on in the kitchen and shut the door to the study. His bag was always packed, ready for such a phone call. And so Vaughn was on his way out the door, heading for Norway, less than twenty minutes later.
Vaughn was sixteen when they told him his father had died. They called him back from military school, to the sprawling house on its meandering acreage, to his father's study where it was not the chaplain—who sat tense on the big leather couch—but rather the crisp commander who broke the news to them. To him, to his mother who stood dry-eyed, looking out the diamond-paned windows at the gardens beyond.
The commander, the chaplain, and the female aide Vaughn never did meet all watched his mother. But it was Vaughn who spoke first.
"You're wrong," he said. They turned at the sound, and he set the stiff wool cap of his uniform on the back of the leather couch, a deliberate gesture. "My father knows those waters better than anyone." He'll come back, but somehow that did not come out aloud.
His mother had looked at the commander, as if daring him to answer Vaughn, as if challenging him for any possible response.
Lost, he had thought to himself, as the commander's voice floated past him. He repeated it, thought of the tower of waves in squall and his father's big wool sweaters in the same somber gray. My father is lost at sea.
"We got the link up, if you want to tap in."
Vaughn nodded at the chopper pilot, who gave him a thumbs-up from forward. He opened the handheld's shell and acquired the chopper's signal bounce, realizing suddenly how tired he was. It had been two weeks of quiet attendance at his mother's bedside, but it was not that that had fatigued him, exactly. Not the chapters of Stegner he read aloud, nor the hours they'd sat together just in silence. It was the days after she'd finally gone, the strain of acknowledging the universal kindness, the awkward considerate approach of everyone around him. The tactful help arranging the funeral. It was a relief to be here in the chopper, sorting beta, surrounded by the rote friendly distance of military and contract service personnel.
"Weather looks good. We should make Varde by 0400 local."
He nodded again, watching as beta on the handheld confirmed clear skies and winds that hopefully would hold until the flight to the dive site.
Vaughn saw the pilot glance back once more during the trip. He knew what the pilot saw: a big, dark-featured man with broad shoulders hunched in the heavy wool of what had once been his father's coat. Not so different than how Vaughn had been at sixteen, except that the coat now fit him. He had very little of his father's weathered good looks, and all of his mother's dark-eyed severity. None of his father's warmth, and much of his mother's need for solitude.
The pilot made no further attempt at conversation; most people caught on quickly that Vaughn preferred it that way.
Manuel Coy came to meet the chopper when they touched down at Varde. They stood for a moment on the tarmac, Coy's large brown hands clasped around Vaughn's own.
"I did some praying for your mom . . . for both of you." It was almost apologetic, and that caught Vaughn off guard. They stood for a moment, Vaughn's gaze a dark, curtained window where Manuel's could be nothing but emotive and expressive, perpetually thrown open. The comforting weight of Manuel's hands was almost unbearable: Vaughn watched as Manuel realized it, released him a moment before Vaughn had to pull away. His laugh was easy as Vaughn collected himself again. "The food here is terrible. Unbelievably terrible, I'm telling you."
"Have you met the rescue tech yet?" The base was still a few hours from dawn, dark, icy, with the sea invisible but palpably present to the north.
Manuel shook his head. "No. I heard they tried to get her to switch some equipment in Oslo and she refused; that might be the holdup."
"Yeah." Vaughn hefted his own briefcase and kit bags. They were light, a minimum of equipment. He rarely carried more than he knew for certain he'd need. "Beta on the slipsub was pretty thin."
"Well"—Manuel opened the door to the ready room and at once they were enveloped in warmth, light, and the sound of lively voices—"you're here, so either it's Russian or Northern European Union and they won't claim it or it's US and the NEU has agreed not to know."
"All coming like some lost child, hunting our harbor's breast, and our harbor's eyes." A stout Norseman intercepted them on their way to the coffee. He seized Vaughn's hand and shook it energetically, never losing his grip on his cigarette. "Sergeant Kare Pettersen. UNA diver."
"Vaughn, Coy," Vaughn replied, although it was clear the sergeant had recognized them. Pettersen nodded, and walked with them to the cantina tables. The room was full of personnel, all awake, alert, and the sense of anticipation was strong even as they sat with coffee or cigarettes, conversed over cold sandwiches. Although most were Norwegian military, Vaughn recognized a Swedish deep-water retrieval expert and a few other contract Service hires like himself here and there. A familiar situation, where local military cooperated with the Service's independent agents to take care of delicate international issues. Results were often best this way, resources most available, logistics handled easily, and the specialists left to do exactly what they did best.
"The best coffee in the Union," Pettersen said, pouring, then continued, much more quietly but in the same exhaling breath, "I have some interesting beta on that slipsub." He handed Vaughn a cup.
They found a vacant office, and Pettersen closed the door behind them. It was good coffee, Vaughn thought as he sat on the edge of a desk and took a sip. The smell was a warm thread of continuity between oceans and continents, the taste all too similar to the last pot they had brewed at home.
"So"—Pettersen exhaled smoke and coffee vapor in the same breath—"this is a fucking weird one. The Russkie destroyer Tomsk picked up a pingcode distress on Saturday around noon, ident for US vessel. That was from good coordinates for the slip, OK? Then last night I hear Comm here said they picked something up which sounded like Estonian idents, another distress. Pingcode again. Same location."
Vaughn shook his head. "Impossible." Estonia had decommissioned their last Cassandra slipsub the previous year, as part of the NEU consolidation agreements.
Pettersen shrugged. "Wolf?" It wasn't too long ago that a joint Services and Russian team of six had gone down to assist a craft signaling Chinese foundered, only to turn up as hostage leverage in small-bloc negotiations a few months later.
"Maybe," Vaughn said, since Manuel was looking to him for both reaction and answer. Then he looked at Pettersen. "That's it? Just pingcode? No radio, no beacon?"
"Ping only." Pettersen nodded. "Just came straight through the water, clean and clear."
"Pingcode?" Manuel asked finally.
Pettersen interrupted as Vaughn was about to explain. "Someone in your Navy Intelligence had too much time on their hands, made a big expensive gimmick for sending information underwater. Looks and sounds like just noise, but computers can sort it out to make sense."
The layman's concept, Vaughn knew, and inaccurate. Pingcode had come and gone out of regular use years ago, but its derivatives persisted. Vaughn had written some of the most sensitive decryption routines in current use. Elegant code that could pick out a quiet blip from an ocean full of random sound, and convert it back to its original form; sometimes volumes' worth of sensitive information.
Pettersen studied them both a moment, light blue eyes in a sea-weathered face. "It's a mystery. Well, the weather holds, so maybe we find out one way or the other pretty soon." He grinned.
"Thanks," said Manuel.
"Ya, you bet," Pettersen said. He glanced out the window as a searchlight briefly strobed the tarmac outside and propellers rattled the glass pane. "Ah. Looks like your SeaCat pilot is here."
Vaughn found Ace in a dimly lit utility room not much later, changing from IS Air black coveralls into a UNA flightsuit. Ace turned, grasped the hand that Vaughn extended and pulled him into a rough embrace. "They said you were skulking around."
"Ace," Vaughn answered. "They get you your Cat?"
"Yeah, we picked up a Navy rig in Larvik. All kinds of bizarre American junk down there."
"Including some pilots." Vaughn grinned, despite himself.
"Hey, now." The grin was returned, light spilling in from the doorway to illuminate Ace's tanned face with its oddly boyish freckles. "I was in Dover. Seen Manuel?"
"Yeah, he went to meet the rescue specialist. A Finn; Airikkala."
"They brought a specialist in. I guess that's good news, if they're going to the trouble."
A good enough chance, Vaughn thought, that there was crew left to save. He contemplated the Cassandra sub, silent on the ocean floor, not far away. Lost, he thought. "Yes."
Vaughn had known Ace Jenkins almost as long as he had contracted with the Independent Services. Jenkins had come out of first US Secret Service and then CIA cream, in the end too much of a jack-of-all-trades to be truly happy with even the best agent post. They had worked together on dozens of jobs, and like most Services staff, spent little to no off-contract time together. For all that, Ace knew more about his life than most people.
He watched Ace now, stuffing the last of his clothing into an NEU allsack and shouldering it. The easy, weathered lines of the pilot's face somehow too known, too familiar.
"I almost called you," Vaughn said. "For the funeral. She said there should be someone there besides her bridge club." A tight smile, as he followed Ace out the door.
Ace didn't turn or so much as pause. He knew better than to meet Vaughn's gaze when he answered. "I would have come."
Less than twenty minutes later they were aboard a UNA cruiser, headed out for open water with the Navy SeaCat tethered firmly to the deck. Although the helicraft could take them the full distance to the dive site, Ace had requested a partial ferry to save fuel for the dive and any contingencies. The slower cruiser would meet them at the site a few hours later to complete rescue and recovery of the vessel below.
Vaughn, Manuel, and Ace stood in the icy morning fog, admiring the Cat's sleek lines and watching the Finnish rescue tech talk water with the Norwegian divers.
"You sure you can operate that pretty thing?" Manuel jerked his head at the Cat, grinning at Ace. "I know you got that Jimmy Doolittle reputation and all, but I hear she's a whole different animal underwater."
"Yeah." Ace left it at that.
She sat, a dark shape crouched over the deck, blades resting half-raised like an umbrella that would not quite close. Vaughn had only seen the Cats in air, where they looked more or less like any military helicraft. Now he could see where she was bulky around the middle not for cargo but ballast, and where ports under her broad nose opened for intakes.
"So resounding. So comforting. I feel much better," said Manuel with a hands-up gesture, and went over to introduce himself to Airikkala.
Ace knew Vaughn well enough, at least, to let the next five and then fifteen minutes pass without conversation. They watched Manuel, who was a rank 10 negotiator, talk the Finn down from terse and defensive to open and friendly. As they conversed, her arms uncrossed, her smile appeared, and after a few minutes she was talking earnestly. Manuel in turn appeared to find her equally engaging, and within minutes they were joking and laughing together. Vaughn shook his head.
"Does his wife know he can do that?"
They continued to lean on the railing, backs to the east where the sun simmered somewhere below all the fog.
"It's . . . strange. I don't miss her. I miss my father."
Ace looked over at him a moment and then out at the darkness that was the water. "You know where your mom is," was all he said.
"I don't expect to be in charge," Liesl told them as they strapped themselves into the Cat's crew chairs, "but when we get down in the deep and rescue ops start you commandos had better keep out of my way."
There was a long silence followed by a click of a buckle and then more silence. Outside, the carrier's crew and divers waited for the team to launch.
Then Liesl extended a hand to Vaughn, which he clasped. "Ormandy trench, oh-fifteen," she said. "I heard many good things about you."
She caught him by surprise. Ormandy had been just before his mother became seriously ill, when he had gotten into the thick of the Services' most delicately political assignments. He had taken all of those contracts, each more covert than the last, until he had begun to feel like he was disappearing altogether. Many military personnel had walked away from Ormandy with medals. He had been brought in, like many of the other IS, because he was both a US agent and an international operative. The sub that had gone down was loaded with sensitive data belonging to half a dozen different nations, weapons it wasn't supposed to have, and a handful of other incendiary retrievables. He'd gotten out alive, the Services had cut him a token bonus check, and he'd taken time off in Johannesburg until his hands stopped shaking and he could take a bath without having a panic attack.
"Thank you," he eventually said. "You were there?" He didn't remember her, but then there had been dozens of teams at the wreck site. And he'd done his best to forget anyway.
A flicker of something crossed her expression, perhaps a mirror of what was on his own face, at the memory. Then she smiled. "Three out of eighty crew wasn't the best, but maybe I guess it beat zero."
"Yes," he said. She had hard blue eyes, an intensity of expression that might read as unattractive to other men. "It did."
"We're clear," Ace said from the front, and then they were aloft, smooth and steady despite winds which had begun to pick up from the north.
Vaughn glanced out the spray-flecked porthole: sea and sky were virtually indistinguishable as dawn greyed to charcoal. Unbidden, an image of the pitch waters of the Ormandy trench, of the Russian sub's pressure-rippled holds lit with halogen came to him and he looked back at the Finn. "Did they give you percentages?"
She stopped halfway down a checklist, gear bag open in front of her on the SeaCat's floor. After a moment she glanced up. "Is it important for you to know?"
It struck him that he had no business taking this contract. Combat, yes. Retrieval, yes. Rescue, no. "Yes."
"Well." She put the clipboard down, and lacing strong-looking fingers together, leaned on her knees. "UNA beta is slightly more pessimistic than what the NEU gave me. They say fifty, decreasing five for ten, which puts us at approximately"—she glanced at her watch—"twenty-five percent right now. If we can make it to the site and find her in the next few hours, I'm saying we're at something like twenty percent."
"That's if they're airtight and the cyclers are functional." A silence, in which Vaughn was certain they both thought of Ormandy once again.
"Yes." She picked up the clipboard, but her pale eyes were on his. She grinned suddenly. "Of course, if it's a Finnish crew, those numbers improve dramatically."
He managed a laugh. "Of course."
From the cockpit, Ace waved them to silence. "Boorste, SeaCat eight-five, say again?" He listened, eyes still on the horizon but brow furrowed.
An expectant silence in the cabin, and after a moment he nodded and turned back slightly. "The carrier just picked up another message, sonar, same coordinates. They're saying it's Japanese, and this time they had idents. Clear distress call from the RJP Miamata. You guys know her?"
"Miamata?" Vaughn said over Liesl's exclamation.
"The Miamata"—she shook her head, looked at Vaughn, looked up at Manuel and Ace—"breached after an onboard explosion and sank about a hundred miles off the Philippines in '12. Jenkins, you're sure 'Miamata'?"
"Yeah, that's what they said."
"The Miamata was a Noki class destroyer," Vaughn said. He and Liesl exchanged glances; she was still shaking her head. "Crew of about a thousand."
Ace was already in conversation with the Boorste, confirming. "Yeah, Miamata, the codes are right. Sonar caught it clear and clean, right from the same points as the last call."
"The Estonian call," said Vaughn.
Liesl was saying, "Well, I'm telling you right now we're not in any way set up for a destroyer— Estonian?"
"They've had three calls," said Manuel. "One US, one possibly Estonian, and now Japanese."
"Japanese, not a submarine and some seven years too late." She sat back in the chair, laughed. "Well, shit."
"Playing games? Trying to tell us something?" Ace was looking at Manuel.
"I don't know." Manuel shook his head. "I don't know. And why sonar, anyway, why aren't these calls coming over regular international distress? Find out . . . find out how close it was."
"How close what was? The coordinates are dead-on, we—"
"No, how close the call was. To the actual call from the Miamata in '12."
Outside, the sea had separated from the horizon in a band of black against grey. All those ships, Vaughn thought. Lost, calling and crying unendingly. His father's vessel, somewhere still down there.
He turned his seat and began running checks on the Cat's scaled-down sonar equipment, familiarizing himself, calling up codes and decrypt routines on his handheld. When they hit the water he wanted to be listening.
Ace hesitated a moment before relaying the next information from the Boorste. "They were already checking. It was a match, according to archives. An . . . actual match," he said.
The navigator console chirped their proximity to the slipsub dive site. "Do we correspond to the Miamata call coordinates?" Liesl asked although they all knew the answer.
"Only checking," she said.
"Mother of God," Manuel said when the Cat lit on the ocean's rough surface and immediately pitched sideways. "Sorry," he added to Ace, who was already compensating with ballast as she settled into the water.
"It takes a minute or so for the rotors to fold in," he said as she rolled in the opposite direction and then recovered. "Sorry about the toss."
"How hard will it be to acquire and keep a seal down there?" Vaughn asked Liesl.
She glanced out at the whitecaps. "If we're . . . right about the craft, and she didn't become hung up on something, she'll be down deep. We might get a little stir, but we can hang on." She glanced up at Ace. "Good aim helps."
"They call him Ace," Manuel said, turning back around with a broad grin despite his apprehension, "they call him Ace because he can't hit the broad side of a barn point-blank."
"With a sidearm," said Ace imperturbably as the Cat sank below the water's surface. "With a sidearm."
Vaughn's first dive had been at the age of seven, on a US Navy sub his father and two other Pentagon tacticians were putting through its paces off the coast of Florida before taking it out for war games in the Balkans. He'd sailed his whole life already, and was familiar with ships, with the water, with sailors, and in fact most of his father's world. He sat unobtrusively in a corner of the sub's bridge, watching the close-quarters efficiency, and as his father had promised, the crew barely noticed he was there.
"So," his father asked him as they drove home from the base, "which do you like better, under the water or on top of it?"
Vaughn thought for a moment, looking out at the rainy morning and then back at his father's weathered, intelligent face. "The top is interesting, but there's much more underneath," he said.
They had submerged less than a hundred feet when the next signal came. The Cat's sonar caught it as a staccato, drawn-out ping, up from the slipsub's hypothetical location far beneath.
"That was Morse," Vaughn said, and checked his handheld for the reading. The Cat's equipment was efficient, but his was more so, set up to receive from the SeaCat's sonar, to record, to analyze and decode against a few billion decrypt routines in a matter of seconds. In this case, although it had been rapid, he already knew what he was going to read. "SOS," he said, just as the next sequence came in.
"Clicker?" said Manuel, with some disbelief. "Nobody uses those, not for years. Are you sure it wasn't more pingcode?"
"Yes, I'm sure, and it wasn't a clicker," said Vaughn. There was another sequence, and he was silent, listened, and then played the sound off the handheld for them. "It's sped up. Originally"—he played it back again, slower, mixed by the handheld for lost peaks and distortion—"originally it sounded like this."
Metal on metal, with uncanny clarity, the sound of something banging against something, through water.
"My God," Liesl said. "But why sped up? If anything, the water should be slowing it down."
"I don't know. I don't—" Another ping, and it struck him as he listened that it seemed identical. He had the handheld analyze it for shape and duration. It was in fact identical. Utterly identical. It had been the exact same sound, three separate times. Like someone had a recording and was playing it up to them. "—know," he said.
The rate of descent was agonizing. Although the Cat was built to take tremendous pressure while remaining light enough for her blades to support in air, she could not withstand the rapid drops of larger vessels. Ace let her down slowly, leaving the three of them to alternately listen, contemplate, and speculate.
"Is it possible," Manuel asked Vaughn, "that these are signals dumping randomly out of the slipsub's sonar memory beds? Old stuff?"
Vaughn shook his head. "No, data on the beds is stored magnetic. The only way it would translate back to sound would be over some kind of receiver, like this"—he indicated the handheld—"and most subs aren't equipped with them. Besides, the beds are made for mapping, not recording, really. Series of pictures of the ocean around the vessel, translated from pings over time. It's spatial data. Most actual sounds, like the sounds other vessels or animals make, get filtered out as noise."
"So where is this coming from?"
"You got me," Vaughn said.
"There's no way. . . ." Liesl resurfaced from deep thought. "There's no way this could just be . . . echoes. No sound wave carries through thousands of miles of water and a decade, right?"
"Not that I'm aware of," Vaughn agreed.
"Prank," said Ace from the front. "Elaborate prank."
Liesl looked at her watch. "Maybe, but if I were less than five hours off of the last of my power and air I don't think I'd have so much of a sense of humor."
"We're almost there," he said.
As they continued downwards, Vaughn played the SOS off the handheld again, listened, analyzed the set of three pings against itself. He imagined how it had been made, however long ago; the rap of a tool against a pipe or against the hull. He imagined the last efforts of a crew to save themselves, each other.
"There she is," said Ace, and Vaughn was infinitely glad for the interruption. They moved to the cockpit to see, as the Cat nosed down and her search lamps shone into the sea's blackness. The slipsub's shape and then her details came into view; although she was still and dark, Vaughn was relieved to see she was also largely whole.
"Damage to the battery compartment. Might have flooded the aft," Liesl said, reaching past Ace to move the search lamp's control stick. "If the battery's down, no cyclers." She glanced at her watch, although Vaughn thought it was likely she knew perfectly well what the time was. "Damn."
As they drifted down alongside, they could see the damage to the aft section: something either had struck the battery compartment from the exterior or had caused a rupture from the inside. The metal of the hull was peeled back and most of the aft section to the tail was rippled with the force of the water passing hammerlike through it.
Liesl gestured to the midships hull. "You've got an indicator there," she told Ace. "Let's kiss up."
Ace nodded. "Stations," he said briefly, and Vaughn and Liesl returned to their seats.
After the Kursk and a few other incidents at the turn of the millennium, submarine designers had taken rescue even more aggressively into consideration in design. Hatchways were built down the length of the sub at regular intervals and then the hull constructed over them, so that a rescue team had a series of options for attaching, establishing a seal between the sub and the rescue craft, breaking through the hull, and then opening the hatch to gain access. It meant that in this case, all that was necessary was locating the sub and finding a hatch indicator. The trick was to attach exactly over the indicator, and to get a good enough seal between the sub and the Cat before cutting into the median space.
Ace touched the Cat's magnets around the hatch indicator marks in the first unhurried try.
Manuel exhaled, and slipped out of the copilot's seat to help Liesl work the controls for the telescoping seal unit at the Cat's hatch. "I take back everything I said," he told Ace.
"That's what they always say," Ace replied. "Liesl, we're on the bottom, you're at fifteen hundred meters and all readings say she's sitting stable and . . . midships is reading sound. Not getting much on infrared." He checked his scanners again. "But it's definitely a Cassandra." He hailed the slipsub. "Slipsub local, this is US Navy SeaCat eight-five. Do you read us?" A silence, following which he tried again, once in Russian and once in Japanese. He shrugged. "Vaughn?"
"No stir on sonar."
Liesl watched the readings over the controls. "Seal's good. I'm going to go ahead and punch this big girl, see how she reads." Manuel opened the Cat's hatch, then gave Liesl room to put her thick-barreled penetrator gun against the Cassandra's water-slick shell. "Heads up." A moment later, a sharp impact broke the tense silence and lit up the Cat's sonar. Liesl pulled the gun back, checked the LEDs on the valve now embedded in the slipsub's hull. "Not too bad. Pressure's about the same in the hatch space. That's a good sign." A few turns of a knob on the valve resulted in a hiss of air, and checking the LEDs again she nodded. "OK, equalized." She picked up the cutting torch and stepped back, watching expressionless as sidearms appeared from jackets and kit bags. "I'm cutting." She raised the torch to the hull.
"Mayday," came over the sonar.
The torch hissed in bare air for a moment before Liesl shut it off. Vaughn sat back down at the sonar abruptly, Glock still in his hand.
"Mayday, Mayday," came into the silence.
Liesl raised the torch again. Vaughn held up a hand.
"It's not them."
"What do you mean it's not—"
"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, this is the Royal T. Frank, at oh niner five eight, oh seven six fiver—"
"It's not them, it's not the slipsub, it's bouncing off their fucking hull," Vaughn said. He was cold, despite the heat of the lightweight dive suit. "And the Royal T. Frank went down in the Pacific in World War Two."
"Are you—" Ace began.
"Yes," he snapped. "I'm sure."
"Vaughn." The tone in Manuel's voice made him glance up, first at him, then at Liesl and Ace. "Let's begin with the slipsub."
It could have been an order. Although they were all civilians, Manuel was technically senior, and also technically in charge. Vaughn nodded.
"Cutting," said Liesl again, and within a few minutes she and Manuel were lifting a section of the exterior of the slipsub into the Cat. Avoiding the hot edges of the porthole, Liesl leaned in and once again sank a valve pipe, this time through the hatch door into the interior, and they waited while she checked and rechecked the readings.
"It's cold as hell in there, but the pressure's all right. And"—she turned to look back at them over her shoulder—"they're mostly out of O2. We'll have to flood the section."
There was only a moment of silence before Ace said, "We've got enough. Go ahead."
It took Liesl only a few moments to connect the Cat's oxygen supply to the slipsub using the valve and a length of fragile-looking hose. It was the pale transparent green, Vaughn thought, of so many things, like port glass and the tubes that ran in and out of life support systems.
"There's still a chance they're alive," she said.
She raised the back end of a flashlight, glanced at Manuel, who nodded. She banged hard on the hatch, one, two, three times.
She banged again. "Alive, but down," she amended finally. She glanced at the valve display. "O2's at 18 percent."
"Mayday," said the sonar, and Vaughn pounced on the handheld.
He read the data, considered, read again. "It's being bounced off something else. Someone—someone's using the Mayday call as a ping. The call itself, the sounds. Just like the Morse call."
"Not radio?" Ace was poised to respond.
Vaughn shook his head.
"Go ahead," Manuel said to Liesl. She leaned into the hatch space, and turned the latch wheel slowly.
"I'm trying to—" A series of calculations, and after a moment of wrangling with the handheld's helpful tables, Vaughn pulled a pen out of his pocket and did the math by hand. "It got bounced off something at around 72:33:05, 35:22:14." He looked at his numbers. "In theory. It's only a kilometer at the most from here, southwest. Open water."
"But the source?" Ace moved back to lean behind him, after handing Liesl a spanner for the uncooperative latch wheel.
Vaughn shrugged. "Can't tell. Maybe topside."
"Almost through," said Liesl. "Jenkins, how much time to get in and search?"
"Not long. Ten minutes at the outside," Ace said, with a glance forward to confirm his instrumentation. To Vaughn: "C'mon. We'll sort it out later."
Vaughn nodded and rose, unwilling to leave the Mayday ping like that, unanswered. He stood for a moment at the sonar, fingertips resting on the display. Then he rose.
They took up positions behind Manuel, who with Liesl had finally broken the latch wheel loose and was opening the hatch door.
A draft of cold and stale air stirred into the Cat.
"Slipsub, hello," Manuel called into the inky darkness beyond the opening. An ironic tone, considering the ready angle of the Sig in his hand. Vaughn found himself wondering if Manuel had ever had cause to fire a weapon at depth.
Manuel gestured to Liesl, who shone the penetrating beam of a flashlight into the sub's interior. Beta on the Cassandra had shown a single operations and bridge area connected by a slim passageway to the crew's quarters. They had come in midway down the bridge section, and now consoles and equipment bays sprang into relief in the sudden light. The eerie silence continued.
Manuel looked back at Ace. "If you please," he said, and when Ace moved to cover him from behind, he slipped through the hole and into the sub beyond. He dropped down, to avoid becoming a silhouetted target against the light. "One, two, three down," he called back. "Passage to the aft sealed. I think this is it." A hand raised into the light, to beckon them in.
"There should be at least four crew," said Vaughn. A tightness in his throat, unexpected and unwelcome. He followed Liesl through the opening, rough metal of the cut hull catching at his palms.
Liesl hooked the light over the edge of a conduit, and knelt at the side of the first crewman, who was slumped against the wall just beside their point of entry. He was young, Vaughn judged, as young as nineteen or twenty. His skin was white pale, with a faint tinge of blue. "No," she said briefly, and Manuel echoed her from across the cabin.
Vaughn forced himself to stir; Ace was still covering. The third crewman lay slumped over the map table, and Vaughn pulled him upright to slip a hand under the collar of his uniform. The skin under his fingers was cold, loose-feeling. He had died some time ago. He glanced up, suddenly aware that the three of them were silent, looking at him. "Gone," he remembered to say. He started to lower the body back to the table and stopped. Written in grease pencil on the map's acrylic cover was:
SOS SOS SOS
The letters spanned the color-coded relief of the ocean floor, crossing over navigator's marks and arrows and what looked like the captain's notes.
A buzzer sounded from the SeaCat's helm.
"Three minutes; we're a third of the way into our O2," Ace called back from where he had followed Liesl, trailing her aft. "Let's keep moving and wrap this up quick."
Or we'll wind up just like them, Vaughn thought, and tried to shake it off. He felt Manuel watching him, and lowered the body the rest of the way, suddenly aware he'd been holding it against him.
"No sign of the fourth." Liesl and Ace came back through the bridge section from the operations area, which housed the bulk of the slipsub's surveillance equipment. "And the crew quarters are flooded. Passage to aft sealed tight."
"All right." Manuel paused a moment, glanced around. "Vaughn?"
But he was already under the sonar console, pulling the bed panels off and counting plates. This was the real reason he was here, to make sure that the plates came out and the data that was on them made it into the right hands. NEU surveillance belonged to the NEU, except of course for any coded data, any random communication pings they'd picked up and were unaware of. He would dump all that on the SeaCat, per his contract with the US government. Ghost information, echoes of messages meant for other craft which could be very damaging if extracted and decrypted, but for all that were just so much noise.
As he pulled the plates, he thought about the Mayday from the Royal, and about the grease pencil SOS.
"Wait." He set the plates down gently only out of habit, and emerged suddenly from under the console. "Wait."
Ace came to help him move the body at the navigator's station, but Vaughn stopped him. "He was here. . . ." He rearranged the corpse, replacing his fist where it had lain just next to the letters. Still clutching the pencil, which pointed upwards as if in deliberate signal.
"Electronics," he said to Liesl, who went into sudden motion. "Electronics is above us," he said.
Liesl found the hatchway, and shook off Manuel's restraining hand as she pulled the latch over. "It's not meant to seal. It's just the ladderway—oh, for Jesus Christ's sake." She stood looking in disbelief at the sheet of metal over the hatchway. "There's something on top of the hatch. They modified, or it's equipment holding it closed or"—she and Ace shoved at it vainly—"or something on top. No, don't bother. It won't budge. We'll have to use the torch again."
They found the fourth crewman up there, after Liesl cut into the overhead and they pulled themselves up and through. Air tanks from dive suits and two oxygen tanks which looked like they had come from first aid kits lay around him on the floor.
"Alive," Liesl said, bringing a fresh oxygen tank out of her own kit. Where he had not heard stress in her voice before, Vaughn now heard relief. Ace knelt alongside her, and they rigged a sling to carry him out in.
The crewman coughed suddenly, and a hand reached to pull Liesl down to the mask over his face.
"We'll get you out of here," she told him, and looked up at Manuel. "How's your Dutch?"
"Rusty," he said.
"I'm—I can," Vaughn said, and Ace automatically moved aside.
". . . told them not to put that fucking thing on top of the hatchway, fucking guaranteed we'd flood the aft ladder," the man was saying. "None of them made it, did they, stupid fucks—"
"No," Vaughn told him, and realized too late that he'd said it, just like that.
"I knew it," the man said, and his hand gripped Vaughn's with sizeable strength as Ace and Liesl slid him towards the newly-cut hole. "It's OK, kid, I already knew it. It's OK."
When they got back into the SeaCat, Vaughn set the plates aside. He let Liesl and Manuel see to the crewman from the sub, and returned to the handheld, to the ricochet pings. He pinged once, twice from the Cat's sonar, mapped his results. Then he stacked the plates from the slipsub into his own portable bed and pulled off every random sourceless bounce signal he could find.
Three hours later, on the deck of the Boorste, Vaughn gave the waiting NEU representative the sonar bed plates from the slipsub and handed the captain a list of coordinates.
"There are at least four other craft in this quad. We don't know whose or how old, but these are their locations."
"You found them with recycled pings," said the captain. "Bounced noise." He nodded, at Vaughn's look. "Yeah, we picked them up too." He took Vaughn's arm, led him a few paces away from the swarm of crew and press.
"So you tell me," Vaughn said.
The older man shook his head. "I have no answers. None that make sense. We read the source of the pings as coming down off the surface, like it's getting transmitted from somewhere to that point on the surface, and then echoed, or translated, into the water. Then the pings make a straight line for objects in the water and bounce, and we pick them up. There's been a bunch of those crazy signals, not just here. All over the damn place, off sunken vessels. They're finding stuff nobody ever expected to find again."
Vaughn looked out at the water, where already the dive teams had gotten under the slipsub and were preparing to bring her to the surface. Bright orange buoys marked the dive site, and craft ringed the area with recovery and tow equipment. Then he looked across the deck, where Liesl was helping a chopper crew load the Dutch seaman onboard.
"Vaughn, I got something to tell you." The captain had the look the commander had had, all those years ago, and yet none of his careful, sympathetic calculation.
The captain took a deep breath, as if for both of them.
Vaughn knew already what he was going to say. What he had wanted and dreaded to hear all these years, handed to him like this, along with all the other lost souls. The best and worst possible gift. How many pings, he wondered. How many signals had finally been heard, how many ships would finally find harbor, home?
"Go ahead," he said.
He turned with the captain to look out at the horizon, across the wide sea. To hear the news that he'd been waiting for, all those years.