Far below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, the USS Nevada glided silently through the waters. The storm four-hundred fifty feet above the ballistic missile submarine barely disturbed their smooth, quiet ride.

Commander Mark Bishop stood off to the side in the Command and Control Center, alert to what was happening, but letting his crew do their jobs. The executive officer, his second-in-command, was serving as officer of the deck while the various stations were manned by the third watch. After seventy-nine days at sea, they were at the top of their game, running drills and practice exercises with precision, handling busy nights like this one with a professional focus.

The storm above was hiding a full moon. For the crew of the Nevada it didn’t matter if the moon or the sun was out—they ran their own eighteen-hour version of a day aboard the sub with three watches lasting six hours—but they tracked the phase of the moon and the topside weather so they would know conditions should they need to make an emergency ascent and surface.

They were eight days away from the end of this patrol. Handwritten signs counting down the hours were becoming artistic contests between divisions—engineering was holding the top spot in Bishop’s opinion—and the chief of the boat reported crew morale was good. Mark had already made the rounds through the four levels of the Nevada on the prior watch, and he tended to concur. Problems were remarkably few for this late in a deterrent patrol.

They had four days of relative calm before they would be moving into the busy waters off the West coast of the United States, where they would be dealing with the surge in surface traffic along the shipping lanes. But that didn’t mean no one else was out here in the ocean with them. Bishop left the command and control center and walked forward to the sonar room.

A submarine crew was blind when underwater, the only way to tell what was around them was to listen. The sonar guys were listening tonight with some of the most sophisticated acoustical devices ever created. A dome full of hydrophones stretched across the front of the submarine, and a towed array—a long cable set with more hydrophones—was now deployed and trailing behind them. Sophisticated software took the data, created a three-dimensional picture of all the acoustical noise around the boat, then worked to identify the direction and source of the sounds.

Bishop stepped into the narrow room. His sonar chief, Larry Penn, standing behind his seated men, slipped off his headphones, and offered a quiet, “The whales are moving east.”

“Got a count?”

“Four, plus two young.”

Penn handed the headphones over, and Bishop listened for a minute to the haunting whale song. At least one male in this group, Bishop thought, given the sophistication of the melody. Bishop handed back the headphones. “Have you marked this audio for the marine biologist?”

“I’m having it dubbed,” Penn confirmed.

Bishop was sure he had encountered more whales in his years on the job than most marine biologists would in their entire careers. The oceans were more active than most people realized, and whales traveled for thousands of miles just as submariners did.

“Anything more on the faint surface contact?”

“The acoustical signature identifies it as the fishing trawler Meeker III out of Perth, Australia.”

“He’s far from home tonight.” The navy maintained files of acoustical signatures for every military ship and submarine in service around the world, as well as most commercial vessels. Given enough time, they were able to identify nearly every ship they heard above them.

“Got time for a question, Captain?” The sonar technician at the broadband console stack turned to ask. 

His rank was commander, it would be another two years before he might be promoted to the rank of captain, but navy tradition designated that the man in command of a boat be addressed as captain regardless of his rank. “Give me the question, Sonarman Tulley.”

“Do whales drink water?”

He’d been caught by that question two patrols ago. “No. They extract water from the food they digest. They don’t drink saltwater.”

“Good answer, Sir,” Tulley replied.

Trying to stump the captain was considered a time-honored custom on the Nevada. Those that succeeded were noted on the captain’s board for the day and got a good-natured pat on the back from fellow crewmen. Sometimes even from the captain himself.

At the sonar terminals tonight were two experienced operators along with an ensign on his first patrol. The waterfall displays were filled with small blips in all directions. The ocean was noisy tonight, both above them and below. They were crossing over the moonless mountains—a range of seamount formations deep in the ocean—that were staggering in their size and height, but none of them reached the ocean surface. Numerous volcanic vents below them were releasing magma, creating hot, flowing spirals of ocean water which climbed to the surface like chimneys. Fish congregated to feast on the plankton which bloomed in that mineral-rich water.

Nevada’s sonar operators were listening for obstacles that the ship could hit—seafloor features not on the navigational maps—as well as surface ships and other submarines. In an emergency ascent to the surface, Bishop would like to reach open waters rather than turn an unlucky fishing vessel into tinder. Other submarines might have hostile intent or might simply run into him by accident. Even a friend was a potential danger to the submerged Nevada.

The sonarman monitoring the narrowband console stack leaned forward. “Sir, possible new contact. Bearing 082.” He worked to bring the sound into sharper focus. “Surface contact, two screws.” The software searched for a match to the sound. “Possibly the transport vessel Merrybell, Sir.”

The sonar chief reported the new contact to the command and control center. “Officer of the deck, sonar. New contact. Bearing 082. Surface ship transport vessel Merrybell.”

It was a routine night. Bishop felt a sense of contentment. The men were eager to be home, but while on watch they were giving the Nevada their A-game. The boat was in good hands. They wouldn’t miss whatever could be heard out there. It took an enormous amount of trust in the sonar guys for the rest of the crew to be able to sleep well while underwater. They all knew if the sonar crew made a mistake, a collision risked the safety of the boat and the lives of all aboard.

Bishop had come forward to the sonar room to more than just observe operations. He turned the conversation to his concern for the next few days. “A Russian sub, an Akula II, was hiding at a hundred thirty-five fathoms, eighty-seven miles off Washington State, when the Alabama came home from patrol,” he said. “The Akula was using the noise of the shipping channel and the current along the continental shelf to stay hidden. We need to assume he’s around, and I doubt he’s going to tuck himself into the same spot again. I want a good, solid look at the continental shelf before we approach.”

“If he’s there, we’ll find him, Sir,” Penn assured him.

“I’m counting on it.”

They would be able to hear the Akula before it heard them, all things being equal. But Bishop would like to tip the odds even more in his favor. “Any sign of the Seawolf?”

“Not yet, Sir.”

Their job was to hide, and the USS Nevada crew took it as a point of honor that no one—friend or foe—had ever located them while on a deterrent patrol. But in this situation it would be prudent to seek out some help to insure they had a clear route home. The USS Seawolf would be in the waters to the east, where they were heading, guarding the front door to the Naval Submarine Base, Bangor. Cross-sonar with the Seawolf, and the picture about the possible Russian Akula would get a lot clearer. “As soon as you get a glimmer of a contact that might be the Seawolf, we’ll go all quiet, and see if we can’t slip in beside him unnoticed before we say hello.”

Penn grinned. “I like it, Sir.”


* * * * * * * *

Commander Mark Bishop headed back to the command and control center. If asked what he did for a living, he tended to offer the deliberately low-key reply, “I’m in the navy,” and leave it at that. He was the commander of the ballistic missile submarine USS Nevada gold crew. He was one of twenty-eight men entrusted with half the US deployed nuclear arsenal.

His job was to keep this nuclear submarine operationally safe, its crew of one-hundred fifty-five trained and focused during their ninety-day submerged patrol, and be prepared to launch a missile carrying a nuclear weapon on valid presidential orders. A civilian conversation about his work couldn’t go very far when nearly everything he did was classified.

They were off hard-alert, the USS Maine had taken over for them, but they could be back to that highest readiness level within three to five hours.

There were always two ballistic missile submarines on hard-alert—in their watch area ready to fire—patrolling in the Pacific, another two on hard-alert in the Atlantic, with two more in each ocean ready to come to hard-alert within a few hours. The remaining six boomers in the US fleet of fourteen were in port undergoing maintenance and re-supply, preparing to return to sea. The number of subs made possible a rotation home every ninety days, while maintaining a constant strategic deterrent for the nation.

Each ballistic missile submarine was assigned two crews—a gold crew and blue crew—who would alternate taking the submarine out on patrol. Three days after he arrived back in port, Bishop would hand over the Nevada to his counterpart on the blue crew, and the submarine would undergo twenty-five days of refit—maintenance and re-supply—then the blue crew would take her out to sea to patrol for the next ninety days. Bishop and the gold crew would get the Nevada back in four months.

His crew considered having to share the Nevada with blue crew to be a painful timeshare. The men loved having four months on shore, but they hated to give up ‘their’ boat to other hands. The grumbling would begin soon after they set foot back on the Nevada. If an item could be moved, blue crew left it somewhere gold crew wasn’t expecting. The first few days would be spent returning the coffee pot, training materials, on-board movies, wrenches, maintenance logs, Nevada photos, and the boat mascot to the proper gold-crew-designated spots. Repairs and maintenance not up to gold-crew standards would get fussed over and typically redone. The rivalry between the two crews over who best handled and cared for the USS Nevada was intense. Bishop considered it a healthy attachment to the boat on which they depended for their lives, and for their country’s safety.

The Nevada was five hundred sixty feet long, the center third housing twenty-four Trident II D-5 missiles standing four stories high. Each missile carried eight nuclear warheads. The USS Nevada was one of the most lethal weapons ever built and, paradoxically, also one of the safest.

The training never stopped. The drills never stopped. Safety was life, and submariners lived it like no other profession on earth. They knew this boat inside and out and focused intensely on what could go wrong, how to prevent it, and if it couldn’t be prevented, how to immediately fix it. There had never been a ballistic-missile submarine lost at sea since this class of submarines began to patrol the oceans over thirty years ago. Bishop considered it a sacred trust to maintain that record.

He was in the second of his three years in command of the USS Nevada. After three years, the navy would congratulate him on a job well done, send him back to shore patrol, and in due course promote him to captain. He was in no hurry to get that promotion. This was the sweet spot of his career. The best job in the service was the one he now had. He was taking full enjoyment in every day of this command.

His next job might be to oversee a squadron of six missile subs, or serve at the Pentagon, or teach at the Naval War College—a challenging job would appear, he knew, but a shore patrol wasn’t being at sea. He was going to miss this job when it came his turn to relinquish command, and that day would inevitably come. But it wouldn’t be tonight.

Bishop paused beside the navigation officer and studied their position on  the horizontal digital display table. The boat’s location and all known contacts were electronically identified and constantly updated. The navigational map for this stretch of the Pacific had been updated just before this patrol began, and this new map had exquisitely detailed topology. The continental shelf and the canyons leading away from it were in perfect relief. If the Akula was out there, the territory he could be hiding in was vast, and the terrain gave him numerous places to select. There was no need to risk a contact. But where to position the boat for the next few days was the question.

“XO, I have the deck and the conn,” he informed his second in command.

“The Captain has the deck and the conn,” Lieutenant Commander Kingman confirmed, passing authority back to Bishop.

“Helm, come to heading 040.”

“Come to heading 040, aye, Captain.”

Let the Seawolf do the hunting. Bishop’s job was to stay silent and never be seen. He’d follow the whales for a while. They were heading the direction he wanted to end up, and they were traveling with young. The enormous mammals would stay well clear of any submarine they heard ahead of them. Trailing miles behind the whales and watching their movements would tell him a lot of useful information. He wished to hide. The whales would help him do so.

The world seemed like a quiet place when submerged on patrol, but Bishop was aware it was more illusion than fact. Strategic command sent out a daily naval update, highlighting ships that might be in their area, passing on general news about military deployments around the world, often mentioning diplomatic missions and trade tensions and political concerns from all points of the globe. The military sat at the crossroad of so many dynamics going on between nations. Some nations were rising in stature, in wealth and influence, others were declining, whose leaders strained to stay in power by any means rather than fall.

It had been a quiet patrol, but sometimes the quiet wasn’t the whole story. Bishop wondered if North Korea had come close to blowing something up, if Russia was arguing about natural gas shipments to Europe again, if Japan and China had more fishing boat skirmishes along the chain of islands whose ownership they disputed in the East China Sea. The daily briefings were useful, but they were never quite enough to satisfy his curiosity about the dynamics of what had almost happened.

From the military history he had studied, to the classified briefings he had for this job, Bishop was more aware than most of how close the world often was to war. A boomer didn’t patrol the ocean at hard-alert status because the world had turned peaceful. It remained a deterrent against the fact the world was inherently the opposite—unstable and prone to warfare.

And if he had to pick a subject to lose sleep over at night, he would choose North Korea. When nuclear weapons were considered the reason the nation continued to exist, when warheads were stockpiled in dangerous numbers, North Korea remained an immediate threat to South Korea and a serious threat to Japan. Bishop would prefer rational actors when it came to military matters, and he wasn’t convinced the new North Korean leader had a rational view of the world around the isolated country. Bishop knew some of the classified captain’s-eyes-only tasking orders were launch package codes for North Korean targets.

The world might be quiet tonight, but he didn’t make the assumption it was calm. Following the whales for a while sounded like a smart way to stay undetected.