Authors: Ian Slater
Table of Contents
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
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Copyright © 1977 by Ian Slater
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First Diversion Books edition November 2013
Also by Ian Slater
Battle Front: USA vs. Militia
Manhunt: USA vs. Militia
“I do think they could have given you a bit more notice.”
Captain James Kyle, a short, robust fifty-three-year-old with a cherubic smile and thinning white hair, moved slightly in his kitchen chair to face the bedroom where his wife was hurriedly packing his seabag. “Phil Limet hardly knew he had a heart attack coming, Sarah.”
“Oh, I suppose not.” Sarah maneuvered a bulging toilet kit into the seabag and checked his socks for the third time. “I just want to have you at home, that’s all. I’m sorry for Mr. Limet, and I hope he recovers. I didn’t mean to be unfeeling, love.”
“I never believed otherwise.” Kyle turned back to the big kitchen window. It was almost time to go, but he lingered over his coffee, taking a last look at their garden, his eyes straying beyond to the ships in Esquimau Harbor, lying like toys on the wide gray slate that stretched out from the southern tip of Vancouver Island. It was the beginning of a long, hot summer on Canada’s west coast, and they had told him he would not be back before the fall. By then the black-red blossoms of the Nocturne roses might be finished.
Picking up the binoculars that he always kept by the kitchen’s picture window, Kyle focused on a huge, black, rectangular form in the distance. Looking like a skyscraper floating on its side, it slowly made its way through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It was the MV
, one of the giant American supratankers. No morale problem there, he thought, apprehensive about his own cruise. Three months boxed up in a submarine with a crew of raw recruits. For a moment, he envied the officers aboard the million-tonner, which now began cranking out its side fins and opening its bulbous nose to take in water in order to brake its 190, 000 horse power, seventeen-knot push into the waters of Georgia Strait towards the refinery and shore leave at Cherry Point, Washington. Their pay was better than his, and even if life wasn’t varied on a “floating armada,” as each of the tankers was called, he imagined that it might be a pleasant change—at least for a time. Tricky work, steering these monsters through the treacherous reef- and island-peppered coastline all the way down from Alaska’s ice-free port of Valdez past Sitka in the Alexander Archipelago to Point Conception in California nineteen hundred miles away or to Puget Sound in Washington State. But the idea of a twelve-day return journey in place of the three months ahead of him now was singularly appealing.
But as it always did, the idea went cold. He reminded himself that he hated the smell of the hydrocarbon vapors that escaped whenever the crude was pumped out from the forty cavernous hundred-and-twenty-foot-deep tanks that each held twenty-five thousand tons of oil. He didn’t mind the smell of diesel, even in the confined space of a submarine that would look like a slug next to a whale alongside the
, but he hated the smell of the unrefined crude. He sympathized with the fight that the California Air Resources Board had put up—and lost—in trying to stop the tankers from coming down the West Coast. Every time one of them unloaded in California or near the Canadian border in Washington State, it pumped at least a hundred and sixty tons of hydrocarbon vapors into the air—as much as would come from the exhaust fumes of twelve million automobiles in twenty-four hours. But the discovery of oil on the Alaskan North Slope in the Beaufort Sea and the desperate need for fuel during the Arab embargoes of the seventies had finally defeated the environmentalists. Soon project “Skinny City,” the eight-hundred- mile, four-foot-diameter steel pipe that carried one point two million barrels a day across Alaska from the Beaufort Sea to the North Pacific, was feeding the supratankers. From Valdez the high-sulphur crude made its way southward via tanker to the long-established, ever-expanding refineries of the U.S. West Coast. These refineries complemented Alaska’s own relatively small refining facility. As far as Kyle was concerned it was utterly insane, but nonetheless the Alaskan refinery also supplied Russia with high octane as part of a massive Russian grain deal with the United States.
Still thinking about the price his lungs might have to pay on the supratankers—gas masks or not—Kyle decided that he didn’t want any part of their run after all, no matter how fantastic he’d heard the scenery around Sitka was, no matter how high the pay or how high the “hazard” bonus, which everyone knew was really a “poison” bonus. He’d stick with the navy. Putting the MV
out of his mind, he lowered the binoculars and sipped his coffee.
Sarah, glancing down the bungalow’s small corridor to make sure James was still in the kitchen, quickly scribbled a message on a thin slip of paper and tucked it into a pair of socks. “Your things are all packed,” she called.
Kyle didn’t answer. He was thinking, somewhat guiltily, about how he had told Sarah that “orders were orders” even though he knew that because of his age he could have refused and they probably wouldn’t have pressed him. He was both reluctant and eager to go. Reluctant because it meant leaving Sarah alone, now that the three children were grown up and gone, but eager because he had never lost the thrill of going to sea. When he had unexpectedly received his orders, he had experienced the same excitement he had known over thirty years before when he had first joined the navy. Of course he knew he was just a fill-in on short notice, but that didn’t make him any less enthusiastic.
’s previous commander, Phil Limet, had suffered the coronary barely four hours before, and Kyle had been ordered by Maritime Command in Halifax to take charge of the sub immediately.
“Couldn’t they postpone the patrol?” Sarah had asked.
“The preparations are too far advanced, hon. The politicians wanted to stop money for patrols. But the Old Man put up quite a stink—said that the only way Canada could insist on a two-hundred-mile fishing zone and a twelve-mile mineral zone was to show the flag, otherwise we’d lose the grab-as-grab-can game between the other Pacific Rim countries. That got Ottawa off its butt and got us the money.”
“I thought it was to train new recruits?”
“That too. That’s the other thing the Old Man drove home. Said how the hell can we have an active core of submariners—let alone a reserve—if we don’t train them? Ottawa couldn’t disagree.”
Kyle knew full well that in the near future he would be referred to by the admiral as a case in point. At fifty-three he would normally have been considered far too old for command of a submarine. Actually he was several years older than his record showed, having enlisted when the recruiters of a volunteer navy weren’t too concerned about birth certificates. Soon after the war he had become one of the youngest sub commanders in the Canadian Navy.
Now ex-sub captains were being transferred in their late thirties, at the latest in their forties, to the kind of desk job that Kyle had endured for the past seven years in SOAMCP—Submarine Operating Authority for Maritime Command (Pacific). But the navy was so short of experienced men due to the long-range effects of postwar cutbacks that Kyle had been the only logical short-notice choice. It was what an old sub commander tied to the dull grind of a nine-to-five office job dreamed of—a chance to flee the files and get back to the real job of the navy.
Still, he was anxious and Sarah knew it. She knew that it wasn’t only that he’d miss her, as she would him. There was something else. It couldn’t be that he hadn’t been to sea for so long; he’d kept up with all the refresher courses. And
, after all, was a conventional Ranger class sub, and he knew well enough how to handle one of those. She began massaging his shoulders. “What’s wrong?” she asked gently.
“Oh, nothing,” he replied unconvincingly.
He moved uncomfortably, almost angrily, in his chair. “Oh, it’s all this damned ‘democratization’ business they’re pushing through now. The ‘new breed’ of sailor that I’ll be in charge of.” He almost spat the words out. “It’s no longer a navy where you do what you’re told.” He half turned towards her. “Can you believe that under the new rules the men can elect—
, for God’s sake—representatives to air grievances directly with commanding officers almost at will? What a way to run a navy!”
“But you’ve been doing all right. It hasn’t bothered you before—has it? At least not this much.”
Kyle grunted. “Of course it has. But ashore, behind a desk, I can walk away from it at the end of the day, come home to you and forget all about it. At sea you have to live with it twenty-four hours a day—every day till the end of the patrol.”
Sarah could feel the tension in his back muscles increasing as his voice rose. “Christ, in my day you kept your mouth shut, did your job and helped win a war.” He turned suddenly in his chair. “I was saying the same thing to Phil Limet only last week. I don’t know why in hell these bastards who aren’t prepared to obey orders join the submarine service in the first place. I don’t know why they join anything, to tell you the truth.”
Sarah didn’t like him to use obscenities, but she knew better than to interject. She hadn’t seen him so angry since she couldn’t remember when. She forced her fingers deep into the muscle, but it was like pushing into taut leather.
“Christ,” continued Kyle. “Look sometime at the stupid bloody posters they’re putting up all over the place. ‘Join the new breed, ’ they say. Before their precious new breed will obey an order, they have to cross-examine it.” He turned to look at Sarah. “They might get hurt, you see. Couldn’t risk that—might even get their hands dirty.”
Sarah smiled faintly.
“I’m not kidding you, Sarah. You should hear them. And can you believe they’re allowed to wear civvies on sub duty? Civvies! Looks like a bloody Los Angeles street. Next they’ll be assigning a crew’s lawyer aboard.”
“But they can’t all be that way, can they?” suggested Sarah hesitantly.
She felt his muscles relax a little. He rubbed his eyes and ran his fingers through his thinning hair. He spoke more quietly now. “No. Course you’re right. Guess I’m just keyed up. Been bugging me for months.”
“Feel better now?”
Kyle forced a smile. “Yes, love. Thanks for listening.”
“That’s all right. I’ll put it on your bill.”
He patted her hand, calmer now he’d vented his anxiety.
After a few more minutes of rubbing his back, Sarah’s fingers grew tired and weak, but she kept forcing them deeper into his shoulder muscles.
“Hm, that’s good,” he murmured appreciatively, willing her to keep going. In the reflection of the kitchen window Kyle saw that the last traces of youth had deserted his wife’s deep brown eyes. This morning, dressed in a well-worn tweed suit, she looked much older than her fifty-two years, the worry lines creasing her forehead as she worked hard on his shoulders.
“I didn’t go looking to leave you, Sare. I don’t want to leave you. Never did.”
She felt tears starting again, so she rubbed a little harder and laughed. “Oh why don’t you admit it, Jim Kyle—you just wanted to leave me with all the weeding.”
“Well, it won’t be long, sweetheart.”
She punched him good-humoredly on the shoulder. “Not long? Not long, he says. Three
I’d hate to know what you call a long time.”