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Full Metal Panic! - Volume SS - Side Arms 2 - Chapter 2


[Birth of the <<Tuatha de Danaan>>]

First of all, I would ask you kindly not to refer to me by that appalling nickname, "Duke."

I, Richard Henry Mardukas, was not born into a noble family, and did not have any particularly praiseworthy talents. I am an ordinary man who had spent enough time doing his duty to acquire a certain amount of knowledge and skill, and who has learned to be in the right place at the right time.

I was born and raised in the suburbs of Birmingham, in the family of a doctor. I was a quiet, introverted boy, who preferred logical puzzles and mathematical games designed for adults. I did not particularly dislike sports, however when playing with friends from school I always thought that I would rather be spending this time with Joseph Blackburne's book20, carefully reading his old record of chess matches once again. Observing the irregular, disorderly movements of my friends was not an enjoyable pastime for me. Instead, the simple yet elegant movement of elements and the absolute order of the metaphysical world captivated my imagination.

The story of me joining the Navy is curious enough on its own.

 

The ocean, and the naval combat which unfolds on it, are a world where chaos seems to reign. Besides that, if one looks broadly at my family lineage, only three people have served in the military. One of

them was a camera technician, another worked in the meteorological service, and the third one was a tuba player in a military band (none of them were in the Navy, however, they participated in both wars against the Germans, and not all returned home).

My parents and other people around me had decided for themselves that I would go to a normal university. My father, being a conservative person, was opposed to my choice, even mockingly asking me if I wanted to become Admiral Hornblower. Horatio Hornblower was a character from Nelson's time,

the beginning of the 19th century, who first appeared in the novels of C.S. Forrester. To an Englishman there was no character who was more recognisable, - and he also was the son of a doctor. My father's sarcasm was obvious, but it did nothing to change my mind.

 

I thought being called "Admiral Richard Mardukas" was not too bad. I was still quite young then, and stil had something like a foolish spirit of adventure. Also I think that I hid a certain hate for both my own

introvert nature, my imaginary goal, and the inconsistency between them. In any case, I intended to become a man of the sea.

 

At the end, I managed to convince my father, and owing to his efforts, and fortune that smiled upon me then, I was able to get into the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth. For someone of my birth and social status, it was an almost impossible feat. Of course, I studied frantically. My life aboard a frigate as a cadet fresh from basic training was at times harsh and exhausting, but a wonderful experience nonetheless, and I had decided to remain in the surface fleet and serve aboard a warship. Looking back, it is curious to note that the thought of even getting aboard a submarine hadn't crossed my mind then.

 

Historically, in the Royal Navy submariners were treated as outcasts, thought this prejudice seems to have disappeared in recent times. A ship that lurks in the deep and cowardly attacks the enemy from

 the darkness - that was the traditional image of a submarine. For me, then a young man full of ambition, the prospect of becoming an outcast was unthinkable. However, eventually I found my way to the submarine officers' course. I do not intend to write here about the minor details and feelings that made

me choose it, - suffice to say, at the time I was quite discouraged by the way things went. A friend from the same class, whose grades were considerably lower than mine, was allowed to continue serving in the surface fleet, - he was the second son of a baron.

 

When someone had to be blamed, it was me. A ship with that reputation is perfectly suitable for the son of a commoner, - that was what they seemed to think, and it wounded my pride. Thinking about it now, I realise that this only pushed me to invest even greater effort into my studies.

 

The submarine proved to be the ideal weapon for me. Contrary to my expectations, submarine warfare was not a hopelessly convoluted affair, instead being very close to a board game, with all of its simplicity

and fairness. And in the unique situation that we were in - the Cold War - no other type of navy forces had such a pivotal role. When I realised that, the foolish prejudice I held as a cadet became a thing of the past, and I devoted myself to my duty with renewed enthusiasm.

 

I cannot say that I had an inspiring presence of a leader, or that I had a talent for flattery, but I had a grasp of the basics of engineering and was quite proficient in tactics. I progressed steadily, one step at a

time, and hoped to become one day a full-fledged military officer. By then, of course, I had realised that I would not become a new Hornblower, but I was nonetheless satisfied with my position.

 

During the Falklands conflict I was the executive officer of the "Conqueror" attack submarine. The "Conqueror" was not a particularly new vessel, but then sunk the Argentinean cruiser "General Belgrano" with three unguided torpedoes (of which two hit). In the official records this was the first kill by a nuclear submarine in battle. Of course, since the battles of the World War II era diesel subs, this would have been the first publicly known naval engagement. There were perhaps others before it, which remained hidden from history. I heard such rumours myself, but in any case, "Conqueror"'s battle became known to the world as the first major victory of the submarine fleet in a long time, a fact that was compounded by the immediate and complete success of that attack.

 

The ships of the Argentinean Navy, driven by revenge, passed over us and launched their entire payload of depth charges. They exploded one after another all around us with a terrible roar, the vessel shook from the blasts, and the hull strained under the manifold increase of the pressure of the water, great as it was usually. There were accidental deaths during training or on duty, but until then I had not felt death so close. However, during that battle, I discovered a unique quality in myself - something close to a state of absolute concentration. It was a kind of extremely cold and calculating state of mind which enabled me to see everything objectively. The feeling is very difficult to put into words. It felt as if I was looking at, instead of my own life, at the story of a victim of a terrible accident, on the news from the other side of the globe. Everything around me became a piece on a checkered board, and I was quietly reading the record of the chess party. Of course, I was perfectly aware of the rules of this game, and could predict dozens of moves ahead. I was, of course, tempted to start moving them, but unfortunately I was only the executive officer of that ship.

 

Commander Brown was the captain of the vessel - an experienced and wise officer whom we all treated with the utmost respect. His command of the warship was always correct - no, even perfect, which is why the "Conqueror" escaped the enemy with only one casualty.

 

However, I kept feeling a certain lack of complete satisfaction. If our tactics were a little more elaborate, we could have scored another kill, - I was sure of that. These were prideful thoughts, and I knew I was

forgetting my place, but it was very difficult to keep this discontent from showing on my face as I was standing near the captain on the bridge. When the "Conqueror" escaped to a safe area, the captain looked at me for the first time after the tense situation ended and frowned.

 

- Mister Mardukas... what's with the cap? - he just noticed it.

 

I realised that I was wearing my cap backwards. I must have unconsciously put it on that way. One of my duties being the strict enforcement of discipline among the crew, I was extremely ashamed by this incident. The crew might have gotten the wrong impression that I was panicked by the depth charge explosions, and might have stopped being afraid of my reprimands. This strange habit still remains with me. After battle or manoeuvres, when winning demands my full concentration, I realise that my cap is backwards. On that occasion I just returned it to its proper position, dreading what my subordinates were thinking at that moment.

                                                                 ***

After the Falklands conflict, I successfully completed the Submarine Command Course, known as the "Perisher"21, and was granted the position of commanding officer on the "Spartan"22. On that submarine, trials befitting a historical Spartan awaited me, but I managed to overcome them and even earn a few commendations; perhaps because of this in several years' time I became the captain of a nuclear

 submarine that was then state-of-the-art. It was the Trafalgar-class S-87 "Turbulent"23, and I was already its captain when I first met Commander Carl Testarossa, from the US Navy.

                                                         

It happened in the middle of the 1980's - a period which to me seemed like a particularly cold and unforgiving winter, one which continues to this day. In those days, American and British submarine fleets were working together to constantly track the movements of their Soviet counterparts. If I were to find a suitable comparison, the other side's submarines would be like bombers, with an enormous destructive potential hidden in their bulky hulls, while hunter-killer submarines like ours were close to fighters - small, manoeuvrable, with enough power to destroy enemy vessels. The soviet submarines - the "bombers" - carried a great number of SLBMs with MIRV warheads24, and upon receiving the order were to launch a nuclear strike on Britain, as well as other targets. We had to act before the Russians burned our nation from the face of the Earth, and send the enemy vessels to their watery grave, so we had to be in a state of constant alert.

 

Compared to the current weakened Soviet naval forces, at that time they were much more powerful.

We had identified in all at least seventy strategic nuclear submarines. On the other side, hunting them were seventy-two United States hunter-killer nuclear submarines, with almost ninety more in the Royal Navy25. As our vessels also had to perform convoy duties and the like, we could not simply divide ships between those, and as the enemy threat could come from anywhere, our numbers were by far not sufficient.

 

Of course, it was a matter of tactics, and so could not be measured by numbers alone. We were always devising new plans to counter the enemy, and knew even the operational routines of the Soviet strategic submarines, so we were not as afraid of them as Reagan or Thatcher might have been. Besides, my-- no, Her Majesty's "Turbulent" was a wonderful, state-of-the-art warship. Named after a small brig launched around 180 years ago, this hunter-killer submarine was the fifth ship to bear the name "Turbulent". With its cutting-edge fission reactor, innovative pump-jet propulsion system26 and advanced sonar, it was the finest attack vessel of its time. Seen from the first-generation "Turbulent", it was close to a spaceship.

That day, the "Turbulent", under my command, was quietly cruising in the northern waters several hundred miles to the south-west of the Svalbard archipelago. While on standard patrol duty, at the same time testing the new pump-jet propulsion in the Arctic waters, we intercepted the signal of a Soviet Victor-III class submarine, and followed it to make sure it returned to its home port in the Barents sea27.

 

We only spotted the next target when it was very close. At approximately 0530 hours GMT, the duty officer's messenger woke me from my sleep. It seemed that we had some sort of failure in the propulsion systems - a damper supporting one of the compressors broke down, and if left unattended, we would be heard for miles around. Silent operation of a submarine is quite possibly its most important quality, because it reduces the risk of detection by an enemy vessel. In this case, getting back to the home port was much more tricky, and temporary repairs would not take that long. I therefore carefully stopped the ship, ordered both temporary repairs and a full check of other systems. There have been numerous cases where a small, seemingly unrelated failure, was the sign of a bigger problem. However, after everything was done, it seemed that apart from the damper there were no other abnormalities in the ship's systems.

 

At that moment, the sonar informed me that they had a signal. The very faint noise of a screw could only be coming from a Soviet strategic submarine. If we weren't lying still because of the repairs, we would have missed the sound.

 

The target was heading south, which could mean that it was trying to get closer to the British Isles. The moment we were finished with repairs, I ordered the pursuit of the Soviet submarine. We began tailing it at a distance of twenty miles, where we could get a clear echo, and as data came in we could guess what opponent we were facing. It was close to the Delta-III class, but the data did not quite match known types.

 

- Could be a newer modification of the Delta-III, - remarked one of the sonar specialists.

 

My thoughts were the same. The Soviet navy had recently introduced the world's largest nuclear submarine, the Typhoon-class, which, despite being an ambitious design, had yet to see practical application. The core of the Soviet submarine forces was comprised of ships whose design was proven

to be effective - the Delta-III. I later learned that this was a warship of the newer Delta-IV class28[10].

 

At any rate, the "Turbulent" found its prey. Gathering any possible data was our natural duty. To continue pursuing the new Delta, I ordered the ship to rise to periscope depth and contact Headquarters, who promptly gave me their approval.

 

The new Delta was quietly continuing on its course just below the thermocline - that is, the layer of water that marks a radical drop of temperature and separates the top layer from the deep ocean.

Roughly speaking, it is a "blanket" that cuts off sound between the top and bottom layers of water. If two warships are in the same layer, they can quite easily detect one another, while ships in different

layers will have difficulty getting any signal. Properly speaking, there are several equations describing the relation between the salinity of the water and frequency of the sound, as well as demodulation of the signal and quality of transmission29, that I could elaborate upon; but it is not my purpose.

 

Unfortunately, always seeking precision to the point of boring my interlocutor is one of the flaws of my character. I shall endeavour to control myself without straying further from the main narrative.

Suffice to say, the "Turbulent", under my command, silently crept up to the new Delta. We drew closer to a distance of approximate ten miles, dropped our speed so as to reduce the acoustic signature, and silently descended below the thermocline, where our opponent was...

... So, I am somewhat late, - I thought irritably, - but on the other hand, I am sure I have taken into account all possible factors and my approach manoeuvre was flawless... yes, decidedly, there were no mistakes. I would like you to acknowledge that.

 

My words were addressed to the other ship that we found the moment we crossed the thermocline – it was also pursuing the new Delta. It was so silent that our sonar could barely pick it up until the last moment. The second hunter was a Los Angeles-class hunter-killer submarine of the United States Navy.

                                                             ***

It was the SSN-700 "Dallas".

Despite us being in friendly competition during combat exercises, they were, of course, our allies.

Nonetheless, I had not encountered the "Dallas" previously, and I did not even know the name of the captain. They had, of course, noticed us; we were both almost holding our breath in pursuit of the Soviet submarine, and did not even need to communicate to coordinate our actions. The "Turbulent" and the "Dallas" settled at a comfortable five miles from each other, continuing to shadow the target in silence for another twenty hours. The Soviet submarine was wary, and sometimes tried to check if it was being followed by performing a series of sudden, dangerous turns, commonly known as "Crazy Ivan"30, which put us under considerable pressure. The presence of "Dallas" only added to the tension. It may not be evident for someone who has not taken part in submarine operations, but if the Americans committed a blunder, my pursuit would also be at risk; the other side's thoughts probably echoed mine.

 

Meanwhile, the new Delta was heading straight for the British Isles. Its course itself was definitely unusual. If it was allowed to advance a little further, London would be in the range of its nuclear missiles31.

 

Moreover, the fact that it was operating independently was strange. In the event of a planned attack, a strategic submarine would be normally escorted by one or two hunter-killer submarines. But there were no other vessels of any kind in the area. I remember being taken over by a strong sense of apprehension.

 

Are they trying to defect, or...

 

But then our target showed signs of activity. Liquid fuel was being loaded into the ballistic missiles.

 

Having received that message from the front sonar, I went to check myself, and heard the unmistakeable sound through the headset.

 

Those were the preparation for launch of a nuclear missile. I could not believe it, but it was a fact.

At that time, no unusual activity of the Soviet Army and its Warsaw Pact allies was reported. Secretary General Gorbachev was driving forward his perestroika, and was actively seeking a dialogue with the West. Starting a nuclear war with the Western powers in this situation made no sense.

Meanwhile, the duty officer had received instructions from the HQ that came through the VLS antenna32.

 

The orders were simple, but sent chills down my spine.

"The vessel, identified as a newer Delta-class, is to be sunk. Make it your first priority."

Only momentarily I doubted whether the HQ was serious. This submarine was about to launch a nuclear strike at the heart of my country, Great Britain. The HQ had received this intelligence from another source, and there could be no mistake. Whether the captain was mad, or acting under orders from the radical factions in the Soviet army circles, I do not know to this day.

 

I did not have a second to lose.

 

I ordered all personnel to battle stations, and to bring down the enemy with one sure salvo I tried to get even closer. I noticed that the "Dallas" had also started moving. Quite possibly it had also detected the

sound of fuel being loaded, and received the same order. The "Dallas" was even more silent than us, and it edged forward. I respected their decision and we dropped back somewhat, providing cover.

 

In this case we both knew our place. If we had accelerated, thinking only about distinguishing ourselves, we would be running the risk of revealing our presence to the enemy. Nevertheless, even if the captain of the new Delta class was driven by madness, he was a frighteningly skilful commander, and the submarine's sonar capabilities exceeded our expectations. We did not know the moment when he realised that he was being pursued by the "Dallas".

 

When the "Dallas" began its approach, the enemy changed its course up, towards the thermocline. Both the "Turbulent" and "Dallas" followed, but then the enemy's acoustic signature vanished. Using the thermocline and a warm current that passed here, he disappeared for what seemed like moments to me.

 

When we next detected him, he had finished his turn and was starting a ferocious attack on the "Dallas".

 

Sonar reported the sound of water filling the enemy's torpedo tubes. It seemed that before launching his nuclear payload he wanted to take care of his pursuer. The "Dallas" was taken unawares, not being in full battle readiness.

 

Forward sonar registered one blast.

First a distinctive long, high-pitched whine reverberated throughout the ship, then came the deep, stifled roar. The enemy launched a salvo of two torpedoes at the "Dallas"; the latter, taken by surprise, answered with one Mk48, then steered hard to port, going into a tight evasive manoeuvre and launching decoys. It managed to evade one of the torpedoes, but the other one detonated at point blank range.

In all honesty, at that moment I believed that this was the end for the "Dallas". The surprise attack was so flawlessly executed, that the warship should have not been able to escape, and even avoiding one of

the two torpedoes showed the captain's considerable skill. However, the "Dallas" did not sink. It sustained some damage, but after the terrible detonation we could still hear the faint noise of her propeller. The enemy submarine meanwhile was performing an evasive manoeuvre, and while the Mk48 torpedo was an excellent, reliable weapon, in this situation it was more a nuisance than a real threat, and it did not hit.

 

The "Dallas" was still struggling to control the damage from the torpedo hit, while the Delta was evidently getting ready to strike once more.

Inevitably, it was my turn to move.

 

The enemy did not know about the existence of the "Turbulent", and so could not take my actions into ccount. I ordered the ship to break out of the thermocline where it was hiding, and set a course that would set us between the two vessels at full speed. As the pump jet propulsion was a new system, its acoustic characteristics should have been mostly unknown to the enemy. Even if the enemy ship did suspect something, it would not have time to estimate range and speed. Moreover, I was determined not to give them a second.

 

The Tigerfish torpedoes were loaded into their tubes. Firing one at an actual enemy vessel would be the first time I did so as captain, but I did not hesitate for even a fraction of a second.

 

The torpedoes were away. The enemy also launched a salvo - and it was aimed at the effectively immobile "Dallas". Being in a disadvantaged position, they most likely decided to finish off the first target.

                                                      

 

We were already in position, defending the "Dallas", but even if we did save it this time, our next attack would be severely delayed by this manoeuvre. In that case, provided he successfully evaded our torpedoes, the enemy would have the initiative. So the salvo fired at the "Dallas" had a double goal - yes, the commanding officer of the enemy submarine was a very shrewd man.

 

At that moment I remember well hearing a very distinct sound: the active sonar of the "Dallas". By itself it was a meaningless action, but I immediately understood that it wasn't seeking the enemy - it was a

message to me. The captain was trying to tell me that whereas they lost propulsion systems, they stil had their offensive capability. Keeping an eye on the map of this sector of the sea, I was trying to trace the thoughts of the American captain. He evidently thought that if I somehow managed to protect him from the enemy torpedoes, he would manage to deliver the final blow to the enemy. I did not know what kind of man the captain of the "Dallas" was, and what resources he still had. The moment of decision was drawing near.

 

Should I leave the "Dallas" to its fate and continue the attack?

Should I entrust my fate to its captain and continue defending it?

Can I place my faith in a submarine that has lost its capacity to manoeuvre and only sounded an active sonar?..

- All right, - I muttered, giving the order to place our ship between the "Dallas" and the enemy torpedoes, fully understanding the mortal danger of such an action. The tension was such that I almost physically felt seconds pass inside my head.

As if following the plan, the enemy torpedoes locked on to our vessel. I ordered full speed ahead, to completely lead them away, launched decoys and went into the most daring evasive manoeuvre I could think of. Despite that, they detonated close to the "Turbulent".

The shock was violent enough to remind me of the depth charges in the Falklands campaign. I lost my balance and landed on my backside, on the interior communications console. Other crewmembers suffered the same fate, tumbling down on the floor from their duty stations.

 

The damage control officer, first up, was shouting for reports. The lights flickered as the power was inevitably damaged. It seemed that several compartments were in danger of being flooded, ventilation had stopped, and fire had broken out in two places.

 

In the middle of this momentary chaos, compounded by the roar of alarm sirens, sonar was able to report on the situation. The enemy managed to avoid both of our torpedoes. Damn those good-for-nothing Tigerfish...33 Back in the Falkland campaign, Captain Brown was very reluctant to use them, preferring to rely on old-style unguided torpedoes, - he was right, of course; but no counter-attack followed.

 

While we were chased by enemy torpedoes, the salvo fired by "Dallas" approached its target and hit the Delta-class submarine. Two explosions resounded in the deep waters, followed by a sickening sound that was a submarine hull, folding and twisting under pressure. It was also the sound of an enormous bubble of air swelling and pulling this hull apart. After a series of small detonations, the enemy vessel began to sink, at first very quietly. The maximum depth in that particular spot was well over 2600 feet34.

 

The metal, strained by hydraulic pressure many times exceeding its nominal limit, was soon crushed, and finally one last, big detonation ended the submarine's life. The vessel's hull, torn into tiny pieces, sank thousands of feet to the bottom of the ocean. Listening to that was not a pleasant experience to say the least. Even if it was an enemy that was preparing to launch a nuclear strike, and was ready to kill us, one could not help but remember that there were more than a hundred people on board...

 

Nevertheless, the engagement was over. I felt the executive officer's35 gaze on me, and quickly straightened the regulation cap, that I had as usual turned backwards in a moment of tension. We were fortunate: the damage was not as great as I expected. Six people received injuries of varying degree.

 

Several broken bones, other trauma, and light burns were commonplace after any accident. The fire was successfully put down, temporary repairs were initiated at the flooded compartments and other points that required them.

The damage to the "Dallas" was not as serious as it had seemed; their repairs were finished almost at the same time as hours, and she regained manoeuvring capability. It seemed that we could both reach our home ports without outside help.

 

The "Dallas" approached slowly at periscope depth, and soon we were running a parallel course with approximately sixteen hundred feet between us. After a short time, I was told that the other captain wanted to speak to me over underwater telephone36, which was the reason why he came closer. I was more than willing to talk to him.

 

- This is USS Dallas, Commander Carl Testarossa speaking. Do you read? - the man's voice was powerful, but also gave the impression of a certain presence and grace. I was reminded not of the commander of a warship, but rather an actor performing one of Shakespeare's plays.

 

My hoarse voice, on the other hand, was definitely lacking in elegance and gave the impression of constant gloom.

 

- Loud and clear. This is HMS Turbulent, Commander Richard Mardukas speaking. Is your ship capable of unassisted navigation?

- Affirmative. I believe that we can even fix it ourselves. Thank you for your concern. Is yours in order?

- No major problems here.

- Oh, I am truly glad to hear that, - I heard Commander Testarossa sigh on the other end of the line.

- Please, let me at least say how grateful I am, Commander Mardukas. I was, honestly speaking, gambling on whether you would understand a single active sonar signal, but we did not have any other means...

 

Thank you, Commander. In the name of the United States of America, and my own crew, I only wish to express our deepest gratitude...

 

It was an excessively polite expression of gratitude, but at least it was not the sort of fake camaraderie one could expect. He was truly grateful to me, and unlike most Americans, thinking of themselves as rulers of the sea, his attitude was that of admirable modesty.

 

In any case, I thought he would answer with something close to: "Hey, thanks, cowboy. See you around!" - thinking of the other party as the typical, showy US Navy crowd. Instead I was somewhat bewildered by his response, and after an awkward silence answered:

- No, I should be thanking you. I will henceforth pray for your safety on the seas.

- I wish you the same, sir. Anyhow, when we get ashore I would like to meet you in person, sir. And I will gladly introduce you to my wife and her excellent home cooking.

- It would be my pleasure.

- Then, farewell, captain. Lieutenant Sailor, hard to starboard, bearing two-six-oh.

He turned from the phone, giving an order to the young lieutenant, who promptly responded with an "aye-aye, sir" in his characteristic, booming voice.

 

Telephone contact was soon broken as "Dallas" left those waters.

As expected, this incident remained unknown to the world. The crew of the "Turbulent" was sternly instructed not to mention anything about the missing Delta-IV submarine that we sank. My report was also treated as top secret, and it will probably be declassified only in fifty years.

 

I do not know to this day if that submarine was really preparing to launch its nuclear arsenal, and perhaps the only ones who did know took their knowledge with them to the bottom of the ocean.

 

An opportunity to meet with Commander Testarossa arose sooner than I had thought. The "Turbulent" was moored for at least half a year for repair and refit, and I went to the East coast of the United States on technical business related to a joint shipbuilding undertaking. I informed him of my visit to America by letter, and he gladly invited me to his home in Portsmouth.

That is where I first met that little lady. She was around five years old at the time. Those same, large grey eyes and ashen blonde hair. She was a little scared of me, but kept her calm, even though I could sense some uneasiness in her greeting. God knows I would never have imagined that one day I would be saluting her...

              

                                       ***

Carl Testarossa was a quiet, pleasant, even handsome man, somewhat younger than myself. As I had imagined, hearing his voice over the telephone, he was impeccably elegant, discreet, with a polite smile that seemed to never fade from his face. His deep, grey eyes always seemed to look at something very far away, but they also had the unshakeable resolve of a true man of the sea.

 

I only spent a day in his home, and yet I had enjoyed it like few other things. His house was on the outskirts of Portsmouth, atop a cliff surrounded by a pine forest, that offered a splendid panorama of the Atlantic ocean. Early mornings were especially magnificent, with a sunrise that seemed to illuminate the entire horizon. It was an old mansion, maintained in perfect condition. Every spring it drowned in flowers that were blossoming all around it. The nigh-perfect stillness, perturbed only by the chirping of a multitude of birds, and the dull rumble of the sea, created an idyllic atmosphere that calmed the soul.

 

The town was only a half an hour's walk away, the naval base where he served was only twenty minutes away by car, - it really was an enviably perfect place to live.

 

His wife Maria was a quiet, graceful woman with a gentle smile, whose beautiful ashen blonde hair I would be reminded of later. If Teresa had spent her life as peacefully, she would have been the perfect copy of her mother...

 

Her cooking - ah, remembering Carl's pride, I could only nod in assent, as it was fully justified. The steamed chicken pâté with basil sauce was fabulous, almost melting in my mouth; the main dish was roasted lamb, very tender, made with fragrant herbs I did not know. I have always thought that delicious food can bring out the humblest in any human being. During my visit I was, as usual, extremely polite and reserved, but after tasting it I could only stare and repeat "wonderful... wonderful!" Mrs Testarossa

smiled at my reaction, and I could only smile back. Miss Teresa was the last one to smile - the little girl seemed to be watching my expression intently.

 

- She's a very intelligent child, - Commander Testarossa remarked after dinner, when we were sitting in lounge chairs on the terrace and enjoying a fine whiskey. Teresa was helping her mother clean up after dinner. - Oh, her mother is quite bright, too, but she is... unusual. She hasn't even started elementary school, and yet she already read some books from my library. I would not be so surprised if it was poetry or prose, but those are monographs and treatises of mathematics and engineering. I tried to test her several times with problems that a graduate student would find difficult... she seems to enjoy them like crossword puzzles, and cracks them one after another. And languages... read Italian, German, French

and Latin. And they're now busy learning Russian.

 

Apart from my mother language, I only knew Russian. It was the enemy's language, so I had no choice but to learn it, with a great degree of difficulty, so naturally I was very surprised. Obviously, she was a prodigy. But another thing caught my attention.

 

- I'm sorry, but did you say "they"? Do you have other children? - when I asked, Commander Testarossa suddenly fell silent, and a gloomy shadow passed across his face.

- Yes. I realise that it was rude of me not to say anything, but I do have a son. He and Teresa are, in fact, twins. I'm sure you have noticed that Teresa is already quite shy, but Leonard even more so. He is practically afraid of strangers. I tried to make him stay today, even scolded him, but as you see it had no result. An officer I am acquainted with, Borda, was kind enough to take care of him for me today. He's from the surface fleet, but actually a quite reasonable man.

 

That was the first time I heard Admiral Borda's name (then he had to be commander or captain).

- Mister Mardukas... Please, forgive my son's rudeness.

- Oh no, not at all, your son is only five, I would never think of reproaching him anything!

My words were completely sincere, but Commander Testarossa frowned, as if suddenly realising something.

- Is something the matter?

- Ah... well, you are right. Living with them, one forgets their age... yes, it's a really trivial matter, isn't it.

I'm simply overthinking it.

- They are prodigies, after all, I'm sure it's only natural to do so.

- If they were just prodigies...

He became more serious than ever, so much that it seemed out of place.

- I'm sorry, but I'm not quite following...

Commander Testarossa sighed and looked down for a moment. Then he leaned back, taking his glass in both hands. His eyes were partly closed, looking at me as if studying me very cautiously. He appeared to hesitate for a few moments, then finally spoke.

- Mister Mardukas... When I tell you this, please do no think of me as a... weird person. It is... difficult to talk about this to other people, and I understand very well how ridiculous it may sound.

It was definitely a very strange beginning of a story. I sat a little more upright, so as to show my attentiveness. I did not doubt the reason of Commander Testarossa. To me, he was not just anybody, but a comrade in arms, someone with whom I shared a part in a life and death battle in the cold waters of the ocean. That is why I was prepared to take anything he said seriously.

- But of course, I would not doubt you. You are a fine officer, Commander.

- Thank you...

- So, you were saying, your children?..

- Yes, as I said, everything would be fine if they were simply child prodigies. They would have a better future in front of them, but... Leonard and Teresa are different. At this age, mastering foreign languages

and solving devilishly complicated equations... well, you can find other examples. Sometimes you hear about them in the news, you know - children who can remember an entire phonebook after glancing through once. These cases are quite rare, but they do exist.

 

I nodded in agreement. I saw some news articles about them, and history had a few recorded cases among scholars, such as von Neumann37.

- But as you say, your children are... different?

- Please wait here, I'll be back shortly.

He stood up and briskly walked back into the house, most probably to his study, I thought. He promptly returned with three sheets of drawing paper.

- Here, - he said gravely, and handed them to me. I expected children's scribbles with colour crayons. Needless to say, I was mistaken. Instead what I saw were clear, concise blueprints and diagrams, coupled with complex equations and formulae. The format was unknown to me, and looked like nonsense at first, and the symbols and parameters were different from those I knew. An unqualified person, seeing this, would have dismissed

it as nonsensical scribbles. They were most definitely not. From what I could remember from my knowledge in the field, which was clearly lacking, these equations dealt with reflection and attenuation of electromagnetic waves. On the second sheet was described a process of targeted interference by changing phases of certain electromagnetic waves at extremely high speed, and even a blueprint of three-dimensional usage of such a device. The third sheet described how this device would negate

electromagnetic waves, even avoiding detection by radar. On top of everything, it was applicable to visible radiation.

 

ECS.

 

That exact system, the Electromagnetic Camouflage, that is now in widespread use, but which changed the face of modern warfare forever - its principles were written on those sheets.

 

At that time stealth was not a technology many people were familiar with. The United States Airforce was already using Lockheed's stealth bomber, which used the angle of reflection of radar waves, offering passive protection to create an "invisible" aircraft. Even those were shrouded in absolute secrecy. These child's scribbles contained a technology much more advanced, an active stealth system.

- It is... too elaborate to be a joke, - I sighed finally, being at a loss for words. He nodded.

- Leonard and Teresa did this together, last year. I asked them where they saw it, but they just told me they thought of it by themselves. There is nothing of this sort in any book I have in the study. No, even in

the national library, among classified documents of the Pentagon there is probably nothing even close. I let a specialist from the MIT take a look at it once - even to him this was unknown.

 

Even more bewildered than before, I could only stare at Carl Testarossa.

- So... in short, you are saying that your children, without being taught by anyone, wrote down the principles of a cutting-edge technical innovation that potentially has enormous importance for national security?

- Yes... though I could really be going insane.

His eyes, however, unlike those of a man losing his reason, were clear.

Suffering. The only thing I could now see in his face was suffering. No man possessed by an insane delusion or conspiracy theory could show that.

- Mister Mardukas... I would ask you not to speak of this to anyone... If their abilities became known, they would probably be denied the right to the normal life they led until now...

- But of course. You have my word, - I replied immediately, but it did little to alleviate his anguish.

- Thank you. To tell you the truth... there is a precedent.

- A precedent?

- A child like Teresa and Leonard. A couple of years ago, I heard about it from a local Alaskan news channel. They talked about a child who had barely reached an age where he could say "mama", but wrote complex chemical formulae and physics equations with his crayons. Most people thought it was just another fluke from a stupid talk show, but one section didn't think so. In those drawings was described a yet unknown shape memory plastic and special titanium alloy, as well as the basis model of a completely new type of computer.

 

The adults who used this child for a primitive purpose of self-advertisement did not have any education of this level. This information turned out to be much more useful than material for a simple talk show.

- I went through a lot of trouble to get the pictures of that report, - continued Carl Testarossa. – There was no mistake. Even with my basic knowledge of physics I could see that what that child wrote was very similar to the drawings of Leonard and Teresa. If a simple submariner could understand it, it would be impossible for others not to notice it... Soon after that show, the child disappeared from his home.

 

Looking even more anxious, Commander Testarossa stood up, then went to get a case of Cohiba Lanceros38, Cuba's finest cigars. He lit one and offered them to me, but I politely declined, not being a smoker. Though even if I was, under those circumstances I would hardly be able to enjoy their exquisite fragrance. His voice was too serious, and I could not turn the conversation to a lighter subject. Later, when the Net developed, I tried to look for this case of the miracle Alaskan child, but could not find

anything concrete about what happened to him later. But at that moment I only had a hypothesis - no, rather, a wild idea.

 

In the next ten years after that child's scribbles appeared on an obscure local talk show, a new form of war machines, the Arm Slaves, appeared and evolved very rapidly. Before we met with Commader Testarossa, before the 1980's the world's military technology was advancing at a natural pace - at least, that is what I thought. That pace became increasingly strange after the appearance of the "Alaskan prodigy", and consequently, because of children like Teresa and Leonard. Only later would I learn of the existence of the "Whispered" phenomenon.

 

After Commander Testarossa finished his story, it was my turn to ask:

- Why did you tell it to me?

- I can't really put my finger on it... intuition, I would say. We are now facing something that is outside of normal human knowledge, something very far from common sense. I've got that certain feeling, as if before a battle... I thought you were the person I had to tell it to.

- Mister Testarossa, you are overestimating me.

I wasn't a highly placed government official, or a renowned scholar, and not even an occult researcher - just another seaman fighting communists. Even having heard this story, I didn't think I could do anything to help. However, Carl Testarossa cautiously replied:

- No... I would like you to remember this, it may be useful in the future. It's... yes, same as that time. My sonar ping in that cold sea, my cry for help - you were probably the only commander who could understand it and continue fighting with me. That is why I told this to you.

 

He was right. If his words were not etched deeply in my head, later, when I left the Royal Navy and joined Mithril, in the critical moments of our toughest battles, I would not have been able to take the right decisions. When I later received outlandish orders from her, the ordinary me would have probably not trusted her enough. No, I would not even have chosen to follow her in the first place. It was all like his sonar ping... "I can still fight. Lend me your strength" - the voice in the depths of the ocean, the sound that still resonates within me, as I stand on the bridge of the most advanced warship in the world.

                                                      ***

Despite this eerie discussion, the rest of my stay was pleasant. Miss Teresa went to sleep early that night, and the next day we did not have many opportunities to talk, but she seemed like a gentle, well-behaved child. Most likely, she doesn't remember my visit now.

 

Carl was a very intellectual man, a great conversation partner, even if he had a penchant for lighter subjects and humorous anecdotes. Perhaps if his personality was different, he would never have thought of sending that sonar signal during the battle. We talked the whole night about our Professional careers and our respective ships, without touching on confidential matters. Unfortunately I had work to do the next day, so we hurriedly ate breakfast at an especially early hour; Carl also had plans for the day, and as one of his subordinates came to pick him up in the morning, he was kind enough to take me to the city.

 

As a parting gift, he gave me a small package that he said I should open on the way home, and I was quick to thank him for it.

- I hope to see you again, Commander Mardukas.

- But of course. In the deep blue sea, then, - I said lightly, and he laughed.

- Yes indeed. The Mardukas-Testarossa combo knows no peer on the seven seas!

I laughed together with him as I got into the car that his deck officer was driving and left that beautiful place. Little did I know how right these last words were; only it would not be him, but his daughter I would be sailing with...

 

On the way home, I opened the package that he had presented me. It was light, and I could not guess what was inside; when I opened it, I saw an excellent cap, with "HMS TURBULENT S-87" embroidered in gold on the front. But it was a US Navy-style baseball cap, with the name of my ship - definitely an unusual present.

- Sir, - said the lieutenant, who was driving the car and who probably saw my puzzled expression in the rear-view mirror, - the captain found out about your habit of turning your regulation cap. Forgive me, but I heard about it myself. That you have to be careful when you meet the Royal Navy's "Duke" during manoeuvres, and especially so if his cap is turned backwards.

 

That was the first time I learned of that particular nickname. From the very beginning I was an ordinary person, and certainly did not hold such a title. The origin of it could easily be guessed, however - as a shortened version of my name, "Mardukas". It was somewhat embarrassing that Carl had found out about my habit since that time.

         

- I see. Your Navy caps are easier to turn around, hm?

- Yessir.

- Well, then, please tell your captain how grateful I am... even if I cannot wear it on duty.

- Thank you, sir. I would also like to say, sir, that I am very grateful. You saved our lives back there, sir.

- It was only the most efficient choice... by the way, I think I haven't heard your name yet.

- Sir, Lieutenant Sailor, sir, - answered the young officer in a nervous voice that amusingly contrasted with his large, muscular build.

 

Half a year later, I received a Christmas card from Commander Testarossa. In an enclosed letter he informed me that he was transferred to the Pacific fleet. He would live in Okinawa, and Teresa was apparently busy studying Japanese, which would be the fifth language she had mastered, and I thought that by the time we met again, she would know it perfectly.

 

However, the opportunity to meet Carl again would not come. We were both busy, and on top of that I had to worry about the problem of divorce with my wife, which dragged on for several years, and I felt awkward about seeing the harmony in Carl's household again. We continued exchanging letters frequently, but despite writing about it many times we did not meet. At that time I thought that we would meet eventually anyway.

 

My life in the second half of the 1980s was mostly unperturbed, devoted to duty. The only thing that changed was the trouble and eventual divorce with my wife, but even that did not affect my routine in the Navy in any significant way. The strange story that Carl told me that evening in Portsmouth also faded, and became a simple memory. The international situation, however, changed in an unpredictable way: first the peaceful change of regime in Poland, then the collapse of the Berlin wall. At the time people feared a repeat of the spring of Prague, but the USSR's leadership, and particularly Mikhail Gorbachev, were not prepared to send tanks on peaceful demonstrations (unlike the Chinese). He was a man who was truly seeking dialogue and reconciliation - everyone felt it. Everyone hoped that perhaps this mad era would come to an end, that this world, divided in two ideologically opposite part that threatened to kill the whole of humanity would finally fade into the past.

 

But it did not happen.

 

After the new decade had started, Saddam Hussein ordered the Iraqi army to invade Kuwait, and entered into the Gulf War with the Western countries who could not bear this affront. The flame of this war sparked a renewed conflict in Palestine and Tajikistan, where a separatist movement grew strong, -

 this was what became known as the Fifth Middle Eastern war. I was still in command of the "Turbulent", which took part in several secret operations before the outbreak of the war in the Persian Gulf. I could

have been soon transferred to a comfortable desk job, or become an instructor at a naval academy, but I did not want to be separated from the sea, and I was clinging to my active duty.

                                    

My experiences in the waters of the Persian Gulf are, however, part of another story, and not directly related to this one.

 

Suffice to say, when the biggest disaster in the war happened, I was a thousand miles away in the warm waters of the Mediterranean. My ship was finally returning to its home port after being on duty for a prolonged period of time, hiding in the waters of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Then, one day, a subordinate informed me that a nuclear weapon had been used in the northern part of Kuwait.

 

American and British troops there had suffered heavy losses. An order from Headquarters immediately followed, ordering us to return to the theatre of war in range of our cruise missiles.

 

Anybody who watched the news at the time remembers well the chaos that followed this incident. An American soldier was being interviewed in live at that time. Then - an incredible flash over his shoulder, in the distance, behind the city; the camera that went white, registered a terrible noise, then was cut off.

At first no one could understand the real state of affairs on the ground. In a few hours, however, the United States government concluded that it was a nuclear weapon, launched by the order of Saddam Hussein, and hysterical demands for revenge followed. The Iraqi government made a feeble attempt at denying it, declaring that it was a charade performed by unknown actors. At first, the casualties were estimated at several thousand, but the next day it became clear that the real number was close to one hundred thousand. A frightening number.

 

A nuclear strike in retaliation, which would have been the fourth in human history, was fortunately avoided by frantic persuasion from the government of the USSR, but it remained unknown as to who actually used that nuclear bomb. Major media channels including the BBC and CNN reported it as Saddam's deed, and most people seem to believe that version. However, military staff had to have known that at that point in time the Iraqi army hardly had the capability to use a nuclear weapon. The Arab countries' relations with Israel by then had become irreparably damaged, and the fifth Middle Eastern war had begun. The fighting that begun then continues to this day.

 

But that was not the end of it.

 

Approximately half a year later, a coup d'état happened in the Soviet Union, and Secretary General Gorbachev was assassinated in the confusion. The new reactionary leadership seized control of the army, and once again invaded Afghanistan, from which the Soviet army retreated scarcely a year ago. And my work of patrolling and hunting for Soviet submarines, which had almost become leisurely, suddenly became as important as ever.

 

I was once dining with a superior officer from headquarters, and he asked me what I thought of the current military situation. I gave a honest, straightforward answer.

 

- Forgive me for saying so, but it is like a bad dream. Things have not been this bad since Khrushchev.

- Bad dream... Yes, maybe, - he frowned, - but because of this bad dream we are getting a much larger budget. Isn't that everything we could hope for?

                            

 

I couldn't believe my ears. I understood his logic, but to think that an officer who has sworn to defend his country would utter such words seemed unthinkable.

- You think it strange, Commander? Think about it. If things went as Gorby thought, what would happen to the structure of the world, which was determined by the Cold war? The third world, which was more or less suppressed by both superpowers, would do whatever it pleases and soon drown in ethnic and religious conflict. The AK rifle and the landmine, instead of the nuclear bomb, would kill hundreds of thousands. Terrorism might have become a real problem. What if thousands of people died in London and New York? If you look at it this way, maybe this structure is necessary for the world.

 

I couldn't think of anything to answer. I had frozen with my knife and fork still in my hands, unable to speak, and the officer watched me intently.

- Wars break out systematically, - he said, - if you consider this, this structure of the world, born in the second half of the twentieth century, is by far the most peaceful system that has existed so far, wouldn't you agree?

 

- I... don't know, - was the only answer I could muster, - I am only a man who operates a weapon system to achieve maximum efficiency and results. I think it best to leave the political opinions to the more intellectual people in charge.

- ...Exemplary, Commander. You do not cling to opinions, but only think of yourself as the edge of the sword.

- Yessir, - I answered, my face as expressionless as I could possibly manage, but the officer eyed me curiously, then abruptly loosened up.

- But one of these days you won't be able to conceal that passion within you. No, please excuse me. I was just teasing you a little.

- Ah?..

- I only wanted to confirm something, please forget about it.

- Yes, Sir.

After that we went back the meal as if nothing happened.

This officer's full name was Edmond Mallory. Later I learned that he was the eldest son of Count Mallory, who was known as the founder of Mithril. Perhaps the connection is not exactly clear, but Mithril was born in the early years of the 1990's, it was practically founded after the disaster of the Gulf War and the Fifth Middle Eastern War. Now I realise that I had been tested by him if I was good enough to join the organisation. I received the actual invitation much later, after I had been fired by the Royal Navy, but I must have then caught the eye of Mallory Junior. What he said in this conversation became the reality that we would be fighting against.

                                            

The same could be said for Teresa Testarossa. She was not a vengeful person by nature, but fate had decided that this was her battle.

 

She was also fighting to atone.

 

Two years later I learned that both of her parents had died.

                                                     ***

At the time when I learned of Commander Testarossa's death, that is, two years from the Kuwait Incident, I was caught up in another troubling affair in the Royal Navy that involved a submarine much like my "Turbulent". It was a fault with the reactor's cooling system, and while there were no casualties, it could have caused a high intensity radioactive leak that would spread it around the entire North Atlantic and coastal areas. Naturally, the mass media and the Labour Party were quick to jump on it and start a campaign against both the Conservative Party and the Navy. A special committee was formed, charged with investigating the responsible officers in the Navy. The latter went through rigorous questioning of their safety management and attitude towards classified information. I, as the commanding officer of a similar vessel, was called in as a witness. There were several issues with the reactor on the Trafalgar-class that became evident after close to ten years of usage.

The reason why those "deficiencies" were not repaired earlier were, of course, the costs in both time and budget funds. With the sudden radicalisation of the USSR, the fact that the navy's main force, their

newest ships, had to sit in the docks, was also an important reason of this investigation. One had also to consider the fact that because of the crew's and the commanding officer's skill and caution, an accident with potentially serious consequences was successfully averted.

 

Be that as it may, deficiencies are deficiencies. As a witness before the commission, I was pressured by the upper echelons of the Navy to give a testimony that conformed to their reports that the Trafalgar- class submarines were perfectly safe and that the accident was caused by "human error".

 

I could not say that.

All things considered, the safety could not be called "flawless". One evening, after thinking about it for a long time, I told the committee the complete truth. My testimony was different from the report of the higher circles, and I knew that this meant the end of my career, but I could not lie, having given an oath before God and Her Majesty the Queen.

 

The differences between my version of the events and the reports was clear, and the following week I

 was relieved of command of the ship, and transferred to the editing house of the naval academy. My demotion was a lesson to others. Unless World War Three started, I could never even think of returning to the battlefield. This of course did nothing to lighten my mood, but on the other hand, it was only a matter of time before I would have had to quit active duty and be forced to transfer to a desk job, for

which I had no affection. So I lived quietly in Dartsmouth, immersing myself in military archives and history, and enjoying chess.

 

A month of this quiet routine had passed when I learned of the death of Carl Testarossa through a letter from one of his subordinates. I had written him a letter immediately after being demoted, but had received no answer. Carl died on land, not at sea. He had just returned from the sea to his house in Portsmouth - the very same house I visited – when apparently burglars came in. They shot Carl and Maria, and set the house on fire. Both children were missing.

 

At least, that was the story in the letter.

                                                      ***

I caught myself thinking that I could not believe it, and immediately flew to the United States. I grieved deeply for the deaths of Carl and his wife, but I was even more worried because of what I heard about their children. I never met Leonard, but Teresa was a special case. To think that that pure, quiet little angel was kidnapped by some rascals was unbearable, and I felt like I had to do something. I wasn't a detective or a spy, so I could do little to help, even if I went there... and yet, I felt that I could not just continue wandering aimlessly on the naval academy grounds, burying myself in books.

 

I arrived in Portsmouth for the second time to find the city still in the grasp of winter. It was still morning, and my breath condensed in small white clouds of vapour that were dispersed by the breeze from the ocean. The officer who wrote me about Carl's death was on duty at sea, so he could not tell me the details of the case. Instead, I talked to the local officer in charge of the investigation.

 

- It's an outsider's work, no mistake, - told me the detective, - this is a quiet town, sir. If anyone had a problem with someone else, I'd hear about it. He probably took the money from their house and was out of the state by the end of the day. I've told everything to the FBI, too.

 

- What about the children? Why would the burglar take them?

- That's a classic case, sir. If he happened to meet the police, he'd hold 'em as hostages. Otherwise... well, it's tragic, but that's what happens - after they become useless he would have left them somewhere.

 

They were beautiful children, I hear... such a pity...

- Don't talk about them like that! - I raised my voice without thinking. The detective was, however, professional enough to understand the situation, and seemed to have expected my reaction.

                             

 

- I understand your feelings, sir. But there's almost no way of finding them now, since it was an outsider's work... we could dig up the entire state and not find anything.

- Was it really an outsider? - I said, suddenly reminded of my conversation with Carl.

- Yea. Thirty-eight cal, three shots. Stole everything he could, then turned over a kerosene lamp and set fire to the place. Something like that.

- I can't believe it.

- You can believe what you want, sir. But the case is closed. There's nothing that's suspicious about it.

Leaving the police station, I rented a car and drove back to Carl's house. The mansion, which had completely burned down and was nothing more than a mound of charcoal, was covered with a thin blanket of snow. The silence was terrifying. I pulled on the neck of my greatcoat, and stopped for a moment to catch my breath. The little white clouds drifted and vanished in the now abandoned garden.

I stood there for a while, remembering my conversation with Carl in detail. The strange child prodigies... knowledge that could change the power balance of the world... Carl's fears... these thoughts swirled in my head as I walked around without any particular goal.

 

However, when I pushed a charred piece of wooden board that lie on the ground, I discovered several shell casings. I picked up one and wiped off the earth. I was not an expert in small arms, but even I could see those were rifle bullets, definitely not something fired from a small.38 calibre handgun. This could have come from an assault rifle - something a small-time burglar who was passing through the state could not possibly have. The detective had lied.

 

- So you've gone from sailor to sleuth, eh? - a voice called out to me from the distance.

I looked over my shoulder and saw a man who was walking to me from the forest. He was a middle-aged man with short dark hair with visible gray patches, wearing a thick winter coat and some extra clothes.

 

When he got closer, I noticed that despite his large, imposing build, he had a very friendly face. That was Admiral Borda of the United States Navy.

 

I did not have a chance to talk to him personally, but I remembered his face well, as it appeared a lot in newspapers, in articles that had something to do with Navy matters or ceremonies. His breathing was a little heavy as he approached me at a brisk pace and smiled.

- So I finally get to meet the Duke himself, - noticing my stern look, he smiled again, - don't make that face, I'm not an assassin or anything.

- I know who you are, sir. I don't think I could, however, accept that you were passing here by chance...

- Hmm, you're right. I heard you came, so I walked here to meet you. We used to take long walks with Carl in this forest here, and along the beach.

- I see. So you have got surveillance here, - I looked around the ruins.

                            

 

At a glance, it didn't look like a trap that was set up for me, but I was a complete amateur in these matters.

- Well, I won't deny it, but they're really for your own protection. Sorry if it made you uncomfortable.

- No, sir.

- Well... you came here because you want to know something, right?

- Yes, sir. What really happened here? Are Commander Testarossa and his wife really dead? What about the children?

- They were killed. It was a raid, - answered Admiral Borda dryly, rubbing his black gloved hands together, - some foreign intelligence agency came here to take away Leonard and Teresa. Just before that raid, Carl must have had a sense of something being wrong, and he called me for help. I was at the base, came here not twenty minutes later with five MP's, but... it was too late. Carl was dead, and they were preparing to take the children away by car... then a firefight broke out with a remaining part of the group that attacked the house. We managed to capture a couple alive, but before we could restrain them they took drugs and committed suicide. What remained was a burning house and the two children.

- So... the children are alive?

- In the custody of someone I trust. They've been reported as missing for their own safety, really, - after this Admiral Borda fell silent for a while. - Carl was a brave man. He held them off with a hunting rifle for

more than ten minutes. They were six, and he managed to get two of them.

I heard that Admiral Borda's voice had become truly sorrowful, but there were many other things I had to ask.

- Why the MP's? If you had contacted the local police, and if they moved fast, they could have perhaps been able to get in time to save him.

- You mean, patrol cops used to a quiet neighbourhood, armed with Standard. 38 revolvers, against trained combatants with assault rifles? Even if several people came in time, it would only have increased the body count.

- But-...

- What's done is done, - he looked at me with a grave face, - Don't you think I haven't thought about it?

He was also my friend.

- I am sorry... then, Carl's children, where are they now?

His "trusted person" was no explanation for me.

- Now, now, - I can't tell you that. But they are safe, trust me.

                                                     

 

- All right... in that case, at least tell me who attacked them.

- We don't really know that. Could be a domestic interest, or a foreign one. Could even be big business.

We can't really say yet.

- How could they possibly be of any worth to them?

- Well... those children are quite unusual prodigies. Carl would, of course, stubbornly hide this fact. If I had realised earlier, perhaps this could have been prevented...

His voice darkened as he said that, but then something changed in his attitude. He lightly put his hands together and looked at me.

- Mister Mardukas... I came here to make you an offer.

- An offer?

- Yes, a... proposal. I know your current circumstances. Forgive me for saying so, but you find yourself now in the position of a jellyfish that has been washed ashore, on the sandy beach. Your splendid ability is being wasted, is drying away... So, what do you think - would you like to return to the sea once more, hm? - I was puzzled at the glint of mischief in his eyes. - I won't tell you the details. In fact, we do not know ourselves how this... project will turn out. If you decide to quit the Royal Navy, I understand that you would need a fake social identity... but that much we can guarantee. The important thing is that you will be able to return to the sea, to your battlefield.

- I don't think I quite follow you, sir, - I answered with some difficulty.

For some unknown reason I felt my heart pounding faster. I understood very well that he was not playing some sort of elaborate joke on me. Return... to the sea, to that capricious, perilous sea, to the place where I belonged?.. His words were more enthralling than any sweet whispers of a beautiful woman.

- We will proceed with arrangements, - he turned his back towards me and paused before walking back into the forest, - to fight against this twisted world - we need your strength. If you decide that it is the

right path for you - get in touch with me at any time this week.

- This week? But I-...

He had already almost blended into the darkness between the trees.

- Be quick, but think carefully, Commander! I'll be retiring from military service next week, and you won't find me in the army...

                          

                                                      ***

I constantly thought about it on the plane back home. At the end, I could not resist the temptation. The prospect of leaving the Royal Navy after more than twenty years of service filled me with a sense of uneasiness, but as he said, I was like a jellyfish, washed ashore by the waves of time.

Two days after my return to Dartmouth, I contacted Admiral Borda from a pub, that was distant enough from my home, and told him I wanted to speak to him in person.

- Wait for half a year, Dick, - he said to me then, - a messenger will come to you around that time.

Meanwhile, make sure to take care of any unfinished business you might have. Tell you the rest when we meet.

As he said, someone came half a year later, a man of around forty in civilian clothing who called himself Pennrose. He was accompanied by two other people. I followed him, and soon left England on a private jet that was clearly waiting for us. All the while he was asking me questions that ranged from whether I was under surveillance by any spy organisations, to the state of my health. Pennrose seemed to be a very knowledgeable man; he talked to me about the accident that caused my demotion in the Navy, and

mentioned the more practical side, suggesting that my services would be very well compensated. From his way of speaking I could guess that he was most likely a scientist, but didn't get to know him well.

The trip took well over twenty hours.

We landed on what I could guess was the US Navy base on the island of Guam, changed to a helicopter, and after several hours arrived at our destination. Pennrose did not tell me anything then, but now I know: it was an uninhabited island in the Western Pacific. At that time it did not yet have a runway for fixed-wing aircraft. The helicopter landed in a clearing that served as an improvised helipad, and there were no other facilities to speak of.

The first person who came out to greet me on this lone island was none other than Admiral Borda. He was, however, accompanied by someone I very surprised to see: the officer I once had a strange conversation over lunch with, Sir Edmond Mallory, now dressed in a new, olive-coloured field uniform.

He called out to me in a voice that I could hear even above the roar of the rotors.

- Glad to see you again, Commander!

I shook his hand in response, but seeing the bewilderment on my face, the three of them laughed.

- Ah, I see you haven't been told anything yet! This is going to become Mithril's West Pacific base.

Welcome to Merida, Commander!

 

After exchanging greetings, my next logical question followed - what is "Mithril"? That word, unknown to me, came from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and was a type of metal crafted by magic.

- We are something like an international rescue force, - said Admiral Borda then. - The original name was "Thunderbirds are coming", but... we decided to stick with this one. An organisation of that type, anyway. We don't however, rescue people from natural disasters - we extinguish the fires of regional conflict.

- I'm sorry, I don't think I understand it completely.

- Because it looks like World War Three is coming, - casually said Mallory, as if talking about tomorrow's weather forecast.

I then followed the three men as they left the helipad and took a narrow path through the jungle.

- It could happen tomorrow, in a year, in another five or ten, - he continued. - Small coals could ignite a big fire, leading the two superpowers to a direct confrontation. Now, as we entered the 1990s, this

possibility is greater than ever. Even if among the hawks on both sides there are many who think they can control the situation, this simply isn't true. The conflict that now ravages the Middle East is only the beginning... it's going to get worse.

The path was not long, and after getting through some thicket we came to a small concrete structure, entered through a side door and got in a crude steel elevator. The warning buzzer sounded, and as Admiral Borda pressed a button on the controls, the elevator started going down with an awful clatter.

 

As we descended into the shaft, daylight disappeared quickly, replaced by standard red emergency lights.

- To avoid this, "Mithril" was created. We couldn't entrust any single country with handling conflicts all across the globe. The scope of our operation isn't that big yet, but we already have forces equivalent to a regiment, or maybe a little more39. We have special teams on everything from purely technological matters to strategy and tactics, intelligence gathering to operational analysis. And of course, a military task force for precise, surgical intervention... We would like you to work with the operational task force.

 

To say the least, I was surprised by the idea of such an organisation, but another thing struck me as even more strange.

- I'm sorry, but...

- Hmm?

 

- I'm a submariner, sir. I wouldn't exactly perform well if assigned to a special forces unit. I don't exactly know the scope of "Mithril"'s operations, but I can hardly believe that it would possess a submarine?..

The three men exchanged glances, then started laughing. They were adults, dignified men, but at that moment they looked like boys who were hiding a treasured item of theirs on a hill behind their school.

- Aah, but please, come with us.

The elevator reached the bottom, and we moved forward into a dark passage - or, rather, some sort of cave. Water was dripping from the ceiling, and the air was pleasantly cool.

At the end of the passage was the entrance to a vast space. It was pitch-black, and I could only guess by the echo of our footsteps how large it really was.

- This is..?

Dr. Pennrose, without answering me, left our group, and, having grown accustomed to the darkness, I could see him operating some sort of power generator controls.

First came the sound of a small engine revving up, then the clicking of some switches. Then light from a multitude of powerful mercury lamps flooded this gigantic cave, and I reflexively squinted. I heard Mallory Junior say:

- You were saying something about a submarine, Commander?

Even though I could not open my eyes completely because of the strong illumination, but I immediately saw that shape. Most of the gigantic cave was occupied by an equally enormous body of water, which was probably a reservoir that connected to the ocean. We were standing on a small rocky platform overlooking this natural dock, and in the middle of it was a massive shape. Like a dragon out of legend, it seemed to sleep peacefully in this rocky cradle. There could be no mistake - it was a submarine.

It was gargantuan - no, I would say that its dimensions were absurd. Next to it my "Turbulent" and the "Dallas" would look like mackerel near a whale, and it even dwarfed the Soviet Typhoon-class SSBN. It looked like someone rounded the edges of a skyscraper and laid it horizontally. So enormous was its size that from where I stood, I could not see the ship's stern, because it melted into the darkness far ahead.

 

The ship's originally pitch-black hull was covered in rust in many places, as if it really was a dragon, lying here for thousands of years.

- Let me present to you - Project 985, - said Admiral Borda, - a transport submarine that the Soviet Navy was building. It was supposed to transport a force to the enemy territory unnoticed, so that they could launch a surprise attack from it, anywhere on the globe. You know, Russians have the interesting quality of sometimes realising their ideas on a mindblowing scale.

- ...Russians? Why then... how is this ship here? - I uttered, almost trembling with awe.

 

- Well, you heard about their domestic problems. There simply wasn't any surplus money to finish a project of this scale. They were going to scrap it, or mothball it somewhere in the Arctic ports. Instead, we got our hands on it. We have some people on the inside, too. And in America, England, Israel, China... there are a lot more people that you'd think who share our ideas.

 

Even if what he said was true, I could not even begin to imagine the skill and discretion needed to successfully execute such a plan.

- So, Commander, as you can see, the ship is obviously incomplete. We would like to hear your thoughts - could it be used at all?

- No, it can't, - I responded immediately, - At least at first glance, it's ready for outfitting. Could we guess what the Russians planned and do the same? Well, that's not impossible... but it is simply not enough.

Despite my awe, I was expressing a purely rational, technical opinion. The Project 985 was simply too big.

 

The designer was probably able to demonstrate the effectiveness of the assault of an Arm Slave echelon from it, but it would be impossible to bring this into the enemy's territorial waters and avoid detection.

No matter how I thought about it, the speed could not exceed thirty knots, and the propulsion system needed for a submarine of this size would obviously emit a lot of noise, and once the enemy heard it, he would not let it escape. When it rose to the surface to permit troops to disembark, it would be immediately spotted by enemy radar, and escape would be even more difficult.

- I was honestly surprised by the ship itself. However, I doubt it can perform its function according to your expectations. To put it plainly, it would be sank on its first sortie, or captured, if it's lucky.

The three listened to my frank words very carefully, and when I finished talking, Mallory Junior turned to Borda and Pennrose.

- So... what do you think?

- Mister Mardukas gets a perfect score, - smiled Pennrose.

- Nope, doubly perfect, - Borda corrected him, - I can't see anyone else using her as efficiently.

They took my criticism as something quite natural.

- Commander Mardukas, you're absolutely right. However, imagine for a moment that these problems were solved. How would you use this ship?

- Well, - I personally thought that it would be impossible to solve them, but their question was

 completely serious, so I continued, - It would become a truly fearsome weapon... potentially it could transport up to one battalion to almost any spot on the globe, and after applying this considerable military strength, disappear like a shadow. Instead of air strikes or missiles that would destroy anything indiscriminately, this would be a weapon for a much more delicate intervention.

                                               

 

- That's right, Commander, - Mallory Junior was grinning broadly, - and we think we can put this weapon to use.

- But, that's impossible...

- We also thought that at first. When Mister Borda proposed to call you, we had thought of using a smaller, "normal" submarine, or even a landing craft disguised as a merchant vessel. But as we got help from a... co-worker, the situation changed.

- Co-worker?..

- I believe you have already been introduced to her. Here, take a look at this, - saying this Pennrose handed me a sheet of paper.

Still doubtful, I started looking through it, and the three men engaged in small talk, waiting for me to finish. It was an incomplete treatise, describing several possibilities, technical details, and necessary components that would together make this submarine a state-of-the art weapon: the application of the ECS; propellers made from a special shape memory alloy that drastically reduced the noise; a powerful palladium reactor adapted for use within a ship, a "smart" hull with electromagnetic flow control; implementation of superconductivity for propulsion systems; measures against magnetic detection; extraordinarily complex AI that would control the functions of the warship.

 

I could barely believe my eyes, and continued to mutter "wonderful... extraordinary!" under my breath. I would never forget the excitement that came over me at that moment. It was the same overwhelming emotion as when I had tasted that wonderful dinner prepared by Carl's wife.

 

There were, of course, challenges. The budget, facilities and trained men, they were all necessary. It wasn't a simple matter, to refit a warship, even with a solid theoretical basis. But it became something tangible, and not just a dream. If all the practical problems were solved, this ship could be born anew.

 

- Like it, hm? - smiled Borda.

I could not say I was not impressed, but who was it that created this incredible document? Was it a genius scholar or veteran technician? Yes, I had the feeling that the person who wrote this knew the practical application of these systems.

- You said "she", earlier? Who is-

- Ah, our angel, she is, - laughed Borda, but then, as if remembering something, suddenly became serious. - She is cooperating with us because she thinks that nuclear incident in Kuwait was her fault.

 

I could not understand where he was going.

- It was a nuclear strike using ECS - yes, the nuclear missile itself had an ECS field. And as the person who invented that system, even though her responsibility is indirect, she still feels guilty about it... very much

so.

                                   

 

I was silent for a moment, taking in the meaning of his words. Fighting to atone... Even if she does not show it, that feeling is still there, deep in her heart.

                                                           ***

My new life began. Having retired from the military, for the public at least I became an employee in some maritime transportation company. Officers retiring from the Navy would often find themselves employed in maritime trade and related security firms, so it was a perfect disguise.

Pretending to be a normal businessman, I was overseeing the rebirth of Project 985. The plan of the ship's reconstruction was overseen by the girl, and I travelling around the world, making sure it would come to fruition. The new palladium reactor was built by Rolls-Royce, the propulsion systems in Newport News40, the EMFC41 was developed by Geotron42. And of course, there were hundreds of other enterprises connected to the project.

 

And yet this project remained completely secret. The parts were sent separately, by a multitude of carefully planned routes, so that no one could guess what these parts were for. You would say that even though it was carefully planned, hiding it perfectly would be impossible - but there was the base.

 

First of all it was necessary to build at least a minimally functional shipyard and outfitting dock inside Merida island. For security reasons, we had to operate with a minimum number of workers, but even then supervising their work was not by any means easy. I heard that in Medieval Japan labourers working on the construction of castles who tried to escape were killed on the spot, - but we could not use such methods. Workers were carefully selected and shipped from different places without revealing the location of Merida island, and we did not try to dismiss the construction as something trivial: instead, we let leak rumours that this base was somehow linked to the CIA, more precisely, a secret facility to study aliens, built to replace Area 5543. Though even with the collaboration of the intelligence department and the research division, it was very difficult to keep the real purpose of the base hidden.

 

The budget's scale was quite frightening, even though this was a single repair operation. If we compare a normal submarine's refit to a 50-dollar drainage pipe repair, then this one would cost over 300 dollars. The budget problem was the first one I talked about to Borda and the others, but they just waved it away, and I still do not understand from where they had gotten it. I heard that the Mallory family possessed a vast fortune, but it alone could not have covered the costs of the project. It quite evident that there had to be a great number of investors. With the connections of House Mallory, it was not impossible to attract a number of very wealthy investors, but what about the rest of the money?..

 

However, let us not dwell on this further. My main concern was whether I could make this ship as perfect as was expected of me.

                                                     ***

We were creating the most powerful warship in the world, supported by experimental, cutting-edge technology, which naturally brought its own specific problems. Even if it was called a "refit" of Project 985, the reality was that we were almost starting from scratch, and a veritable army of other people from the military, like me, worked on the project. The designer, however, was never seen. She only sent the research team, which soon became a division, precise instructions for minute adjustments. There were, of course, many skilful engineers on the team, but there was no one else who could grasp the entirety of the complex picture of the ship's systems, adapt to the requirements of the moment and cope with immediate challenges in that way.

 

Every system was vital to the ship we were building, and every one of them was extremely complex and precise, - something I could not deal with, and only "she" could. I was getting tired of playing the telephone game and only exchanging faxes. One day I finally lost my temper and informed Admiral Borda that I would quit the project if I could not meet "her" personally. He seemed to have been expecting this, and only shrugged in response.

 

- OK. I thought it was heading this way. Seems she wasn't too pleased, either. We'll hand her over to your care then.

And one day I finally met her. The one who designed the world's most powerful warship. Teresa Testarossa.

It was eight years since I last saw her. But this whole time, she was doing all this work? This little girl?

Remembering Carl's words, however, I could at the very least accept the facts.

I will not forget her first words to me.

- Mister Mardukas. I'm frankly shocked at your performance. Why is the rewriting of the BYS-2 system software taking two days already? I could have done it in two hours!

I could not even take offence at these words. She was, after all, only twelve, but more importantly, when I heard her talk in that audacious voice, memories rose from deep within my heart.

Carl... You, who gave your life for your daughter's, now reproach me through her.

                             

Teresa was then much smaller than today, even more lithe and fragile, and only those large eyes that reflected her incredible mind were the same. She wasn't even wearing a uniform, but some kind of suit that looked like a school dress.

- If things go on like this, I'll get old before this ship is complete!

- Indeed...

- I got permission from Uncle Jerry - I mean, Admiral Borda. I'll be on this island until she's ready, - saying that, she extended her tiny right hand to me, even though it did not look like she was really expecting a

handshake. - So, please compile a report on the progress first. Then we'll talk... and I hope it will be constructive.

I gave her a dry smile, said "Aye, Ma'am" and raised my hand in mock salute. This was to be my first salute to her. When I recognised her as my commanding officer, naturally my salute would become a sincere symbol of respect, but that happened somewhat later. That is an interesting enough story in itself, but it is best left for another time, for I would have to recount in detail an entire submarine campaign.

 

In any case, several years later, Project 985, which had almost ended its days tragically, was reborn as the amphibious assault submarine "Tuatha De Danann", which would have been impossible without Teresa. As to me, I became the executive officer of the ship, a position that I proudly hold to this day.


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