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Authors: James L. Ferrell

Close Up the Sky

BOOK: Close Up the Sky
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Close Up the Sky

By James L. Ferrell

 
 

Copyright © 2012 James L. Ferrell

All Rights Reserved

 
 

To Patricia, who always believed, gave patient support, and
stayed confident through daylight and darkness.

Chapter 1

T
he U.S. Navy
heavy transport
Sidney James
fought
her way through a howling Pacific storm. From her bridge, Captain William
Rudley gazed across her forward decks at whitecaps running over twenty feet
high. Each time the big freighter slammed into a wave her bow would plunge into
the churning surface,
then
rise again to send tons of
frothy water back into the sea. Rudley looked at the bridge chronograph for the
tenth time in the last hour. It was 0900 and he had not slept since that time
yesterday.

He checked the
engine room telegraph and noted the speed he had ordered at dawn: three
quarters power. They were making twenty knots, an unsafe speed at best; but
even at that they were barely staying on schedule. Rudley was well aware of the
dangers of running too fast in rough seas. One mistake in steering, one wave
too massive, and as the bow plunged beneath the water the screws would simply
propel the ship downward until she went completely under. He did not like it,
but it was a risk he was compelled to take.

The
Sydney James
split another wave and the
impact rumbled through her steel skeleton. Out the corner of his eye Rudley saw
the helmsman cast a nervous glance in his direction, but he pretended not to
notice the mighty groaning of his ship. Calmly, he raised the binoculars
hanging from his neck and made a 180-degree sweep of the horizon. Seeing
nothing but open sea, he walked over to the bulkhead barometer and tapped it. The
pressure was rising, indicating an end to the storm that had plagued them for
the last fourteen hours. He tapped the glass again and noted that the needle
remained steady. He turned back to his vigil of the sea just as First Officer
Paul Driese opened the starboard hatch and stepped onto the bridge. A gust of
damp wind swept in with him. He wore a yellow slicker with the hood pulled over
his head. He flipped the hood back and slung his arms a couple of times to
shake off the salt spray. Driese was a small man, barely five-seven with a
slender build, but his forty-three year old body was in excellent condition. He
was well muscled, and no gray laced his reddish-brown hair.

"Looks like
it's lightening up out there," he said to Rudley.

"Yeah, the
barometer's rising. How about the hatches? All secure?"

"Everything's
tight, Captain," he answered as he pulled off the slicker and hung it on a
row of hooks near the entry hatch. The ship crashed into another big one and
rolled a few degrees to port. The men staggered and braced themselves against
the bulkheads.

"Damn it,
Holloway!” Rudley roared at the helmsman. “Keep her at forty-five degrees to
the sea!" The sailor made no reply, but his grip on the chrome wheel
tightened until his knuckles turned white.

Rudley turned back
to Driese. "
You been
below in the last
hour?"

"Checked the
forward cargo hold about 0630. Lieutenant Burns is handling the stern. He's
been dividing his time between there and the engine room most of the morning. How's
our running time, sir?"

"We're doing
well just to stay on schedule,” Rudley complained. He jerked a telephone
handset off the bulkhead, put it to his ear, and pressed a button on the
phone's dial pad. Within a few seconds the ship's plotting room answered.

"Willis
here," a voice said.

"What's her
range now, Willis?"

"Twenty-eight
miles and closing, sir."

"Estimated
time to visual?" Rudley asked.

"At our current
speed we should have visual by 0950.”

"Good. Keep
me posted if there are any changes." He put the phone back on the hook and
glanced at Driese. "We should have her in about forty-five minutes." He
scanned the sea again with his binoculars. The constant checking of the sea was
a habit left over from his years as executive officer of a cruiser during the
Iraq War. Rudley knew that the
Sidney
James’s
sophisticated radar could detect anything of significance long
before his naked eye could see it, but using the binoculars made him feel more
in direct command of his ship; especially during the kind of weather they were
currently experiencing.

He had just
celebrated his sixtieth birthday, and had been an officer in the United States
Navy for thirty-five years. Like most sailors who had spent their lives at sea,
he could sense the life forces running through his ship just as another man who
had been married to the same woman a long time could sense changes in her moods
and needs. He knew the
Sidney James
was
straining under the burden of her heavy cargo, and was perilously close to the
edge of her capabilities. Under ordinary circumstances he would have reduced
speed and turned the ship away from the wind until the big seas subsided. However,
these were far from ordinary circumstances, and the storm itself was an
essential element to the success of their mission. The ship and her crew would
have to endure the cruel conditions for at least another forty-five minutes. He
took off his hat and ran his fingers through thinning brown hair. He stared out
across the forward hatches for a few seconds, put the hat back on, and turned
to Driese.

“I’m going below
for a few minutes,” he said. “Call me if anything changes.”

"Aye,
sir," Driese responded.

Rudley put on a
slicker and stepped through the hatchway into the howling wind. After he had
gone Holloway turned to Driese and said, "What's the matter with the
Captain, sir? He seems a little jumpy or somethin'."

"He's got a
lot on his mind," Driese responded in a clipped tone. "Keep your eyes
on the sea and make damn sure we don't get off course."

"Aye sir. Dead
on 057 degrees." He tightened his grip on the wheel.

Driese, a
fifteen-year veteran, shared Rudley's anxiety. He had weathered many storms,
and was ordinarily unaffected by them except in extreme circumstances. He knew
the capabilities of
Sidney James's
officers and crew, and felt comfortable with their performance. Most of them
had served together for several years, and their combined experience was more
than a match for any tropical storm. On this occasion, however, it would not be
just a matter of heavy weather seamanship. This time they would have to perform
a precision maneuver in conjunction with another ship under the worst possible
conditions. One mistake by the helmsman and they would wind up at the bottom of
the sea. The thought made Driese wince. In his mind's eye he saw the other
ship's bow rip through the
Sidney James's
port quarter, leaving a monstrous hole in her side. Within seconds water would
fill her forward cargo hold and her bow would sink beneath the waves. As the
downward angle increased, her stern would rise, water would fill the rest of
the forward compartments, and she would plunge to the bottom like a freight
elevator. In a matter of minutes there would be nothing to mark her passing but
swirling sea and wind. No lifeboats would be launched, and no debris or bodies
would float to the surface. He shook off the image, took a deep breath, and let
it out slowly.

Below decks in the
main hold, Rudley stared at the mass of equipment packed into his ship.
Bulldozers, trucks, drums of gasoline, huge pipes, pumps, and steel
superstructures of myriad sizes and shapes filled the hold from bulkhead to
bulkhead. He moved randomly among the pieces of equipment, pulling on tie-downs
and shoving against crates to test the tightness of the chains. His crew was as
efficient as ever; he could find nothing about which to complain.

For a long moment
he stood still and listened to the voice of his ship. She spoke to him with the
moaning of thousands of tons of bulkheads, steel plates and rivets, all
straining against the relentless assault of the sea. He felt the beating of her
heart through the soles of his shoes as her powerful engines labored to
overcome the titanic force of the storm. She was a good ship, strong and sure,
and she had served him well for the six years he had been her captain.

He glanced at his watch and saw that time had slipped away. Only a few
minutes remained before the rendezvous with his escort. He hurried to the
hold's ladder and scurried up the rungs two at a time.

Eighteen miles to
the northeast, the guided missile destroyer USS
Talon
steamed at full speed on an intercept course with the
Sidney James
. Like the freighter, the
stormy weather kept the
Talon’s
decks
awash as she beat through the waves. Though she was smaller, her knife-edge bow
cut the sea with far greater efficiency than the comparatively blunt bow of the
Sidney James
. She was the latest in
her class and had been specially modified throughout to handle the task that
awaited her. In addition to her compliment of cruise missiles, her forward deck
had been fitted with a turret equipped with twin five-inch guns having a range
of over twenty miles. The usual compliment of smaller guns bristled along both
flanks. Astern, tied down on their landing pads, two helicopter gunships rested
beneath their canvas covers. Though other ships were larger and more heavily
armed, in a very short time the
Talon
would become the most powerful force on earth.

Captain Clifford
Lloyd was in the combat information center, from where he watched the distance
between the
Talon
and
Sidney James
slowly diminish on the
ship's radar screen. Instruments of every kind lined the bulkheads, their
green, red, and orange LED’s flashing. The
Talon
was equipped with the most advanced level of American technology available,
making her a true twenty-first century ship. Lloyd glanced at the large
transparent plotting screen in the center of the room where a seaman using a
dry erase marker updated the positions of the
Talon
and
Sidney James
.

"Eight miles,
sir," a petty officer announced from his seat at the radar station.

"Eight miles
it is, Tarnowski," Lloyd answered. "We should have visual any minute
now."

"Aye sir,
providing the foul weather doesn't keep her shrouded." He sounded
doubtful.

Lloyd moved up
behind him and slapped him on the shoulder. "You worry too much,
Tarnowski. I've seen harder rain than this at baseball games. This isn't even
enough to make the hotdogs soggy."

Tarnowski shook
his head. "Hope you're right, Captain. These close meetings always make me
a little nervous, especially having to do it in foul weather."

Lloyd turned
toward the hatch. "I'm going to the bridge," he said over his
shoulder. "Let me know if you pick up any unusual activity from the
Russians."

"Aye,
sir," Tarnowski responded.

As soon as Lloyd
reached the bridge he scanned the horizon with his binoculars.

"She's just
off the starboard bow, skipper," reported Lieutenant Jimmy Hicks,
Talon's
executive officer. "She's
already signaling."

Lloyd turned in
the direction indicated. "I see her. Sound general quarters," he
ordered. "Close all watertight doors and black out all portholes!"

Hicks picked up a
telephone handset and set Lloyd's order into motion.
Talon's
crew rushed to their stations as claxons and speakers
blared the GQ command throughout the length of the ship. Ports and hatches
slammed shut in a crescendo of activity as the crew scrambled to seal off the
ship from the outside world.

"Jimmy, use
the light and signal
Sidney James
to
stay exactly on her present course," Lloyd instructed. "We'll make
our approach from her port side."

Hicks stepped out
onto the bridge wing and flashed the signal by Morse code to the other ship. Standing
procedure prohibited the use of radio by either ship during this operation. He
watched the return flashes through his binoculars as the freighter acknowledged
the instruction: ROGER HOLDING 057.

"Keep her
dead on course, helm," Lloyd ordered.

"Aye sir. Holding
collision course," the sailor responded in a nervous voice.

"Keep her
steady, son," Lloyd said quietly. He fixed his cool blue eyes on the young
helmsman. "And don't worry. It's a piece of cake. Remember, we've done
this before. Just be ready when I give the order."

"I'll be
ready, sir," he answered. This time he sounded more confident.

Lloyd was
forty-one years old with premature gray hair, but was blessed with an unlined
boyish face. His self-assured bearing coupled with an amiable demeanor had
always given his subordinates confidence in his command ability. Many of his
fellow officers paid him the supreme compliment of trying to imitate him, but
none could match his natural aptitude for leadership. Though he felt the
helmsman's apprehension, he did not show it. The timing in what they were about
to do was critical, and he could not afford mistakes.

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