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“Maneuvering, Bridge, aye.” Pacino turned to look at the tugs backing away from the ship and into the wide channel of the river. He looked at the river’s current and felt the wind, then hoisted the megaphone to his lips. “On deck, take in line one!”
He turned and took a step to the aft part of the cockpit to yell down to the aft line handlers “On deck aft, take in three, four, five, and six!”
The line handlers scurried to their tasks, the pier line handlers from ComSubDevRon 12 tossing over the lines that were looped around the massive bollards to the deck gang, which coiled them quickly on the deck and stuffed them into line lockers, shutting the hatches of the lockers and rotating the cleats into the hull, the ship beginning to look like it had never been tied to a pier. Watching it made Pacino’s heart thump harder in his chest. He tried to ignore the feeling as he craned his neck over the bridge coaming to look back aft at the rudder pointing into the river. As the lines came off the stern, the current drifted the stern off the pier, just slightly, an angle of brown water forming between the hull and the pier as the ship rotated on the single line made fast to the only remaining cleat.
“Ease line two!” Pacino shouted into the bullhorn. He watched while the crew paid out the line, then shouted for them to stop. “Check line two!” The order to hold the line tight. The current was pushing the stern further off the pier, which was mixed news. Good because he could back out straight without fears of hurting the fiberglass sonar dome, but bad because his stern was drifting downstream in the current, setting him up to point the bow north, the wrong way.
“Helm, Bridge, left full rudder,” he barked into the 1MC microphone.
“Bridge, Helm,” the speaker blared, “left full rudder, aye, my rudder is left full.”
Pacino looked aft while leaning far out over the cockpit coaming, making sure the rudder rotated to the correct position, to the right as he looked aft. The angle between the ship and the pier had opened up to twenty degrees. He took a deep breath, the next ten seconds seeming to take an hour, the hand holding the microphone shaking.
“Helm, Bridge, all back full!” he shouted into the 1ME microphone. “Hold line two!” he yelled into the bullhorn to the deck crew forward.
“All back full. Bridge, Helm, aye, advancing throttle to back full, indicating revolutions for back full.”
A boiling erupted at the rudder, a geyser of water ten feet tall. Pacino counted to five, waiting for the water flow to build up and roll over the rudder so that the rudder would bite into the river against the current. He had to give the next order quickly before the massive power of the screw parted the single line holding her and cut a line handler in half. The deck trembled beneath his boots from a hundred thousand shaft horsepower kicked into full reverse. Pacino waited with his heart rushing until he could no longer stand it.
“Take in line two!” he shouted to the deck. The pier crew scrambled to grab the hastily eased thick rope and toss it over to the accelerating submarine. The instant the line was no longer fast to the bollard, the Piranha was officially underway, the pier suddenly moving away from them as the ship surged backward. He turned to his lookout, a petty officer he’d met in the wait on the bridge.
The lookout scrambled to hoist a huge American flag from a temporary mast set up aft of the captain. Pacino grabbed a handle in the cockpit near the bridge box, the compressed air horn, and pulled the lever. The ship’s whistle, announcing she was underway, blasted out a screaming shriek, louder and throatier than the biggest ocean liner’s horn. Pacino let it blast for a full eight seconds, watching the ship’s motion in the downstream current as the horn continued to wail over the water of the base. The lookout hoisted the Unified Submarine Command flag next to the stars and stripes, the skull and crossbones leering in the breeze. The horn blasted on, Pacino holding the lever with one hand while craning his neck to look aft.
Pacino had the barest impression of the pier moving away from them, jogging speed at first, then faster, and he saw an admiral standing on the concrete with his hands over his mouth and his eyes bugging out, and the ship rocketed backward into the river. Pacino looked aft at the wake boiling up at the rudder, and prayed for the stern to turn up into the current. Submarines handled like pigs near the pier, and if the screw “walked the bottom” the ship would turn the opposite direction from the rudder order, which could result in the ship turning to head north instead of south, and the entire world would see that the sub was out of control. The pier was speeding away from them in a blur, the end of it in sight and drawing next to the sail, then speeding past beyond the sonar dome. Piranha was free of the slip and roaring backward into the channel, a white frothing wake at her bow. Come on, rudder. Pacino thought, turn the god damned stern upstream. For two tense, endless seconds it looked like the ship’s stern would go the wrong way. but then finally it began to respond, and as the pier moved further away, the rudder finally bit into the river water and broke her upstream and the ship turned, rotating so the bow was pointed south. Pacino could hear a cheer from the deck crew below.
“Helm. Bridge, all ahead flank! Rudder amidships! ”
“Bridge. Helm, all ahead flank, aye, rudder amidships, aye,” the reply crackled out of the bridge box. “Throttle advancing to ahead flank, my rudder is amidships. Bridge, Helm, indicating revolutions for ahead flank.”
There was a chance that the ship’s momentum and turning impulse would not obey the latest order. The ship might continue backward and put her screw into the upstream pier, wrecking the hull on the jutting concrete. The deck jumped, shaking violently as the screw turned from full revolutions astern to ahead flank at one hundred percent reactor power. The wake frothed in anger aft of the rudder. Pacino checked that the rudder was back in line with the centerline of the ship, then turned forward to watch her progress ahead. For a few seconds the ship froze in the river. In the action’s pause, Pacino realized that his palms were sweating, his heart was pounding, and he was panting as if he’d sprinted a mile. Finally the ship surged ahead, a bow wave forming below them.
“Helm, Bridge, all ahead one-third. Steady as she goes.”
“Bridge, Helm, all ahead one-third, throttle eased to all ahead one-third, steady as she goes, aye, steering course one eight two, sir!”
“Very well, Helm,” Pacino called. “Navigator, Bridge, ship has cleared the pier, recommend course to center of channel.” Pacino’s heart was still hammering, with an almost sexual exhilaration.
Crossfield’s voice was incredulous as he spoke into the circuit. “Bridge, Navigator, aye, stand by.”
Behind Pacino the periscopes rotated furiously as the navigator’s piloting party plotted visual fixes. The radar mast high overhead rotated, making a circle every second. The wind blew into Pacino’s face in spite of the Plexiglas windscreen erected at the forward lip of the cockpit, flapping the fabric of the flags, the stars and stripes and the skull and crossbones presiding over the dark dangerous form of the streamlined submarine.
“Bridge, Navigator, ship is twenty yards west of the center of the channel, recommend course one eight one.”
“Navigator, Bridge, aye,” Pacino called. “Helm, Bridge, steer course one eight one.”
Captain Catardi called down from the flying bridge. “Nice work, Mr. Pacino. Watch yourself on the way out.”
“Aye aye. sir,” Pacino replied, hoisting the binoculars to his eyes, his hands still shaking. For a moment he felt an unaccustomed kinship to his father, knowing that his father had done this maneuver every time he had gone to sea.
Michael Pacino walked down the slope of the dock to the boat.
He stopped as he always did and stared at the lines of the sailboat. The sloop-rigged, forty-six-footer Colleen seemed too big to be sailed by a lone captain yet too small to venture out into the high seas. She was Swedish designed and built, an old Hallberg-Rassy with a hundred horsepower diesel, twin generators, teak decks, mahogany furnishings, a modernized computer console at the navigation station aft of the saloon, and a repeater station in the cockpit. She was fitted out with the latest electronics and sail-furling mechanisms and sheet control hydraulics. Pacino preferred to sail her manually, but if he wanted he could stay below for days at a time while the computer trimmed the sheets and took the wheel The artificial intelligence could even skirt a hurricane, uplinked to the orbital Web’s weather forecasts. It was a beautiful and inspired system, but Pacino would keep it running as a backup until he risked sleeping at the helm. Perhaps exhaustion at sea would give him the dreamless sleep he craved.
Pacino was fifty now, but the shape of his face and body had not changed much since he’d been the thirty-seven-year old captain of the Devilfish. He was tall and gaunt, his cheeks thin beneath pronounced cheekbones, his lips full, his nose straight and jutting, his chin still strong. But the signs of his age were not in the shape of his face but in its coloring. The frostbite from the Arctic operation had left his skin dark and leathery, as if he were a fisherman in his sixties, the crow’s-feet wrinkles deep at the corners of his eyes, leaving no doubt that he had spent his life at sea. His hair had turned stark white a month after he was rescued from the icepack, the legend following him that the horror of his brush with death had chased the jet-black out of it, but the more likely culprits the radiation and hypothermia injuries and treatments. His eyebrows contrasted oddly with his white hair, remaining stubbornly black. But perhaps the most startling of his features were his eyes, so brightly emerald-green that he seemed to be wearing the old-fashioned contact lenses that unnaturally changed the iris color. Pacino attracted second and third looks wherever he went. Until now he had assumed that was because of his admiral’s shoulder boards and stripes, but long after he’d resigned his commission the intense stares still followed him.
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