Authors: Larry Bond
Still, she couldn’t ignore the possibility.
21 March 2017
Ortega’s Mexican Restaurant
San Diego, California
Jerry had let Samant pick the place. He wanted the Indian to feel comfortable, in a place he’d chosen. And it looked like the guy liked Mexican. Ortega’s was a family restaurant, very close to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. It was a popular place, evidently—almost full at dinnertime with a mix of customers in uniforms and civilian clothes. Jerry was in mufti.
He had a photo of Samant from the dossier he’d gotten months ago, when the Indian submariner had been an opponent, possibly an enemy. He’d reviewed the file again on the plane flight from Guam: The top performer in any situation, the only Indian to graduate from the British “Perisher” submarine command course. One of India’s best. Having maneuvered and fought against him, Jerry respected his skill and aggressiveness, but for the life of him, he couldn’t imagine why Samant wanted to meet face-to-face.
He was grateful for the photograph; it was a good likeness, and he spotted the Indian officer in a booth. Samant was studying his smartphone as he approached, and Jerry could see what looked like a photo of him.
Samant stood as Jerry approached and offered his hand. His smile seemed a little forced, but Jerry was sure his was the same. He said “Thank you for coming” as they shook hands.
Jerry sat as Samant slid a menu across the table, and a waitress showed up almost immediately. Grateful for the distraction, Jerry ordered. He noticed that the Indian ordered quickly, sure of his choice. “Have you had Mexican food before?”
“Yes,” Samant answered quickly. “There are several Mexican restaurants in Vizag, or Visakhapatnam, the city where I live, although this is much better. At my hotel yesterday, someone recommended this place, and I had dinner here last night as well. It’s quite good.”
He paused for a moment, then picked up something hidden from Jerry’s view and placed it on the table, in front of the American. It was a small, flat box, wrapped with silver string. “A small gift, to thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”
As Jerry picked it up, Samant added, “And also an apology, for trying to kill you.”
Jerry laughed as he untied the string and opened the box. Inside was a flat silver pendant, covered with an intricate, interwoven design. Samant explained, “Aleksey Petrov said your wife is expecting your first child soon. The pendant has a
design, normally applied in henna to the hand or foot. It’s a Hindu custom to draw designs like this on the expectant mother at the baby shower. This particular design is a charm for a healthy birth.”
Jerry was surprised and moved. His mind flashed to Emily, back in Guam. Every calculation had shown that radiation from the Kashmir blast would never reach that far east, but new fathers don’t need a reason to worry. Did Samant understand his concern as well? “Emily will love it, I’m sure. Thank you for such a thoughtful gift.” He added, smiling, “Apology accepted.”
Samant’s face echoed the smile, but it still looked forced. He explained, “I find I am still angry at how your submarine frustrated so many of my attacks. I know you were doing your duty, just as I was mine. While logic and reason say it was nothing personal, I don’t like to lose.”
“No good submarine skipper does, Captain. You were a formidable opponent, and as I recall, I ended up running away with my tail between my legs a couple of times. I’m glad it’s over.”
Samant scowled. “The problem is, it may not be over. Our war with Pakistan continues, and now the Kashmir explosion reveals a new danger that could be even worse.”
“What?” Jerry was confused. “But the news has been good! The samples my government collected prove India could not have made the bomb. Now we are looking for loose nukes, which is still bad, but it’s not India’s fault, and no obstacle to the peace talks resuming. And my first name is ‘Jerry,’ by the way.”
Samant sighed, leaned forward, and spoke more softly, “Captain Jerry, I believe we are involved in the Kashmir explosion, at least indirectly.”
Warned by the Indian’s manner, Jerry managed to stifle his immediate response, but after a moment, asked in the same quiet tone, “So your government is using bootleg nuclear…”
“No, no, not the government, but perhaps some within my navy, possibly even higher in the military hierarchy. A conspiracy.” He described Vice Admiral Dhankhar’s strange actions right before, and after, the blast, and his own unexpected early transfer off
. Then he added what Petrov had told him about
’s refit—including his discovery of the recently ordered modifications to the combat system consoles. He finished with his concerns about Evgeni Orlav, the Russian weapons specialist.
Jerry’s mind reeled with the information, if he could call it that. Disjointed facts that made little sense by themselves did not reveal any deeper meaning when connected, except that whatever was going on could not be good.
Their food arrived, and they both ate, with only a few comments about their meals, while Samant gave Jerry space to consider what he’d been told. They were almost halfway through their dinner before Jerry said, “Have you told anyone in your government about your concerns?”
“No.” Samant shook his head sharply. “Everyone is suspect, especially those near Vice Admiral Dhankhar. He is a popular and powerful officer and there have to be others, perhaps even more powerful. That’s why I’m here, telling you.”
“Does Alex plan to tell the Russian government?”
Again, a quick negative. “No, there is so little to tell. There is no smoking gun, only circumstantial evidence, and his country doesn’t want any troubles with this refit. Aleksey’s supervisor is not open to anything other than staying on schedule. But our conclusion is alarming. The warheads to be used on whatever weapon is being modified may be Russian, and then there is Orlav’s name.”
“And you feel that whatever is going to happen will be in early April?”
has orders to sail on the tenth, bound for who knows where.” With intensity, he added, “I don’t want my boat, my old crew involved in this!”
“I will pass everything you’ve told me to our intelligence people. But there’s little they can do inside India…”
“The Kashmiri bomb came from outside India, and both Aleks and I think there are more bombs involved, otherwise why would Dhankhar have everybody working so feverishly?”
Jerry struggled to imagine the possibilities, which were many, and the potential threat, which was frightening. “I don’t know what my government can do with this, but I promise I’ll make sure they understand the danger.”
Samant’s face mirrored Jerry’s anxiety. “I want someone besides Petrov and myself to know about this. It may come to nothing, but I must do all I can to protect my boat and my country.”
* * *
Back in his hotel room, Jerry, still jet-lagged from his flight from Guam, forced himself to lie quietly in bed. He’d done everything he could to relax, from a brisk walk to a hot shower, and even a nightcap at the hotel bar, but his mind still whirled. Meeting Samant was enough by itself, but his information—correction: his warning—managed to be both vague and scary at the same time.
The alarm woke him, and Jerry realized he must have finally gotten a little sleep. He was washed, dressed, packed, and out of his room in minutes, headed back to the airport. He was already booked on an early-morning flight to Washington, D.C., where he would report to the CNO’s office for debriefing. He wasn’t looking forward to another long plane flight, but he wanted to deliver Samant’s message. He knew it wouldn’t be the end of the problem, but at least it was a start.
22 March 2017
On arriving in Washington, Jerry had phoned the CNO’s office and been told to report immediately. He’d taken the Metro straight from the airport to the Pentagon and after passing through security, made a beeline for the Navy’s head office on the first floor, E-ring.
All the senior U.S. commanders had their offices on the ground floor of the Pentagon, which not only had five sides, but five concentric rings, lettered “A” through “E” from the center to the outside ring. The E-ring offices were the only ones that had windows with a view of anything besides concrete.
The E-ring also had its own security post, because of all the senior officers, and not only did Jerry have to show his armed-forces ID and building pass, but the sentry checked the list for Jerry’s name. “Yes, sir,” the Marine guard said. “You’re expected in Room 1E240.” He pointed. “Down there past the first angle, on the left. You can leave your suitcase here if you’d like, sir.”
At his destination, another enlisted man, a navy petty officer, was guarding the door, and asked to see Jerry’s ID before letting him inside.
It was a conference room, and he almost turned around when he caught a glimpse of the occupants, thinking he must be in the wrong place. Admiral Hughes, the Chief of Naval operations, was there, at the head of the table, but so were Secretary of Defense Geisler and CIA director Foster, sitting across from Joanna Patterson. She was speaking, but stopped and started to rise when she saw Jerry, a smile lighting up her face. She saw his uncertainty, and so did Hughes. He waved and said, “You’re in the right place, Commander. Please sit down.”
Jerry might be a decorated senior officer, and the captain of a nuclear submarine, but he suddenly felt very small in a room with a large part of his nation’s national security command structure present.
Still a little confused, Jerry let Patterson usher him to a seat between her and Admiral Hughes, at one end of the table. Geisler and Foster sat across from him.
As he sat, Admiral Hughes said, “We’ve got a lot to talk about, Commander, and I’ll get right to the most important question. How’s Emily?”
The surprised expression on Jerry’s face was enough to make them all burst into laughter, including Jerry, after a moment.
After he’d drawn a breath, he answered, “She’s doing fine.” That didn’t seem to satisfy the high-ranking government officials, who briefly glanced toward Patterson, who wore a stern expression. Jerry amplified, “She’s well into the second tri now, and is eating again. She had a checkup while I was at sea, and her e-mail said the doctor was pleased with her weight gain. They scheduled a sonogram for next month.”
Patterson sat back, smiling, pleased, and evidently satisfied with his report. “That will do for the moment,” she replied. “I’ll get all the details at dinner tonight.”
Hughes said, “Thank you, Mr. Mitchell. Your news reminds us that the world does indeed keep spinning, and also why we’re all here. We need a little perspective in light of recent events. Now, please tell us about your meeting.”
Jerry told the four everything he could remember of his conversation with Captain Girish Samant. He was careful to repeat the Indian’s words verbatim, or as close as memory allowed, and Jerry had been paying close attention. He even mentioned their seemingly irrelevant dinner conversation about it being Samant’s first visit to the United States, and news about their mutual friend Aleksey Petrov.
As he spoke, he watched their expressions change from interest to concern, then outright confusion. Jerry finished, and waited silently for any questions.
“A nuclear conspiracy in India…” mused Geisler.
“But with bootleg Russian nuclear weapons,” Foster completed. The CIA director turned to Jerry. “Is it your assessment that Samant was sincere? Did anything in his manner or his story ring false?”
Jerry shook his head. “No, sir, although he could be a good actor. This was the first time I’ve met him in person. But given what I know of him, I’d have to say he seemed genuinely concerned.”
Geisler cut in. “That doesn’t make sense, Randall. What good would planting a story like that do India? Besides, they owe us big-time right now. We just proved they didn’t bomb Kashmir. I can’t see them running an op against us right now.”
Foster answered, “Maybe it was Samant they were testing.”
Patterson said, “That doesn’t work either, Doctor. It’s still spreading stories about a nuclear conspiracy. And with us as the target for the disinformation? That’s the last thing they’d want. But let’s assume Jerry’s—Commander Mitchell’s information is true. First, we had an irrational India bombing Kashmir, then nuclear warheads in the hands of terrorists, and now something in between: A country that already has nuclear weapons now has bootleg Russian bombs?”
“Not a country,” Geisler countered. “A conspiracy within the country’s military; just a different group of terrorists, in my opinion. And if a sub is involved, then they want to use them someplace a sub can go.”
“And because it’s the ultimate stealth platform. Pakistan’s the obvious target,” Hughes said.
“But they already did, sort of,” Foster replied. “Was that an intentional attack? If it was a mistake, it makes me wonder how well organized these guys are.”
Patterson sat up a little straighter. “We all agree that nothing pops out immediately. We’ve gotten more pieces to the puzzle, but still no hint as to what the picture might be. For the moment, we will presume that the information Mr. Mitchell has provided is correct. Dr. Foster, Secretary Geisler, I know your people are already working hard on this, but here are some new leads to run down.”
Geisler added, “We must also be very discreet with our investigation. Even with so few facts, or maybe because there are so few facts, if this became public, it would become an uncontrollable mess. We’d probably never get to the truth.” Everyone nodded complete agreement.
Patterson turned to Hughes. “Admiral, if you’re done with the commander, Senator Hardy and I would like to conduct a more extensive debrief this evening.” Smiling, she added, “There’s a new restaurant in Georgetown we want to show Jerry.”
“Of course, Doctor.” As they stood to go, the three men each shook Jerry’s hand, thanking him for his report. Admiral Hughes added, “I’m looking forward to seeing you here in Washington soon. I have several billets in mind that you might find interesting.”