Heart of the Gyre
McGavin's men wore their best pirate gear, the ratty cutoff jeans and torn T-shirts they kept in their lockers for those days devoted to deck maintenance and barbecue. For ten hours straight they had crawled on their hands and knees, cleaning the outside surface of the ship with cotton swabs and Windex. It took time and care to clean the thin film of electronic pigment that sheathed the HMCS Moose Jaw. Designed for active optical camouflage and radar scattering, the ship’s skin made the Alma-class corvettes the most advanced stealth ships in the world, and the pride of the Canadian Navy.
As the sun sank into the Pacific over the starboard side, and Moresby Island sank into gloom off to port, two of McGavin’s men tended the barbecue, an old metal drum repurposed by the marine engineering department.
But most of his men watched him as he armwrestled the moose.
Commander John McGavin sat on one side of the rickety folding table, grasping the moose's right hand in his own. Beneath the moose's cloven plushee hoof nestled the fleshy palm of a man. The commander stared into the twin peep-holes at the bottom of the friendly cartoonish eyes. "You getting tired yet?" he asked the man inside the suit. "Because I got plenty more where this came from."
The moose said nothing. The moose never said anything.
The Entertainment and Relaxation Committee had sewn the ship mascot by hand during their off-watch hours. So far The Committee – a name which was always spoken with implied capitals – had managed to keep its exact membership a secret, a neat trick considering that the HMCS Moose Jaw had a crew of only twenty-six men and eight women. They were responsible for organizing the social events onboard the ship, including movie nights, poker nights, barbecue, and the armwrestling matchup between the ship's commander and a certain mascot by the name of Deuce the Moose.
Without actually asking the commander's permission, they had hyped the match mercilessly from the moment the ship left port at Esquimalt. Flyers showed up taped to every bulkhead, telling fantastic lies about Deuce the Moose's Bunyan-esque feats of strength.
The Committee also posted photos of McGavin from his days on the Naval College hockey team, where he had earned the nickname "Maniac McGavin." Looking at himself in those old photos, McGavin had realized that although he was grateful to the Navy for many things, at the top of the list was the regulation that forbade "hockey hair" mullets.
In the end, McGavin agreed to armwrestle the moose. He sometimes wondered who really ran the ship. Under normal circumstances he would have avoided fraternizing so informally with the crew, but McGavin was still a little proud of his college-hockey glory days. Plus, he was pretty sure he would win.
Commander McGavin grunted and leaned his shoulder against the moose fist. The table squeaked as the clasped fists moved two inches toward McGavin's side of the table.
His men cheered and danced in the white cotton booties they wore on deck to prevent smudging the electro pigments.
The moose made no sound at all. It stared back at him with its stupid frozen grin. With no apparent effort, it moved the clasped hands back to the starting position.
McGavin couldn't figure out which of his men was the moose. He hadn't seen Able Seaman Hurley around for half an hour or so. McGavin figured that Hurley was the only man onboard who approached competitive strength.
With the sharp movement of a second hand ticking past the twelve, the moose pushed the commander's hand four centimeters over the top.
McGavin huffed and sweated despite the ocean breeze. He struggled against his opponent's arm, but the moose was as immovable as a backhoe. He whispered so the crew couldn't hear him over the cheers, "Think you're pretty tough?"
Deuce the Moose said nothing, just pushed him back another four centimeters.
"Commander, do you have a moment?" It was the watch officer, Lieutenant Fitcher, speaking over the Combat Data Space.
"Busy," McGavin gasped.
The moose moved him another four centimeters. McGavin now knew for certain that the moose was playing him. He felt a sharp pain in his shoulder as his arm twisted back forty-five degrees.
Lieutenant Fitcher laughed. She grew up in an Inuit village at the edge of the Northwest Passage, so she had the particularly aggressive humor of someone who spent too many months in winter darkness. "I can see how busy you are. But we just got a coded priority from MARCOM. They want us to extract some Canadian citizens from a floundering vessel. It's in the gyre."
With the suddenness of a bear trap, Deuce the Moose slammed the back of McGavin's hand to the table. The crew screamed in triumph, throwing pieces of pork rib high into the air.
McGavin leaned back, rubbing his shoulder and watching the moose perform a completely silent victory dance, its stuffed velvet antlers flopping about its over-sized head.
"Did you remind them this ship's designed for coastal patrol and defense? Hell, I'm looking at a coast right now."
"I did. And they told me we're the only asset that can make it there before the weather turns."
"And I guess they don't mind risking us to the scuzz?"
"Sir, with the current water temperature, I think we can be in and out before it causes serious damage."
"Let's hope so."
"We're to refuel with the Protecteur and then proceed with all speed. Should take about twenty-three hours."
"Then let's get started."
The hoopla on deck died as the hydroplanes lowered into the water. While the corvette floated in displacement mode, the hydroplane vanes folded vertically against the sides of the hull, two near the bow and two near the stern, like the flippers on a seal. In hydroplane mode they flew the ship through the water like 500 tonnes of cloud.
"Pack it up, people. We're going into deep water."
The men and women of the HMCS Moose Jaw scrambled to pick up paper plates and folding chairs. Three sailors worked together to get the barbecue grill down the freight hatch.
As the deck emptied and the bow turned toward the open sea, Commander McGavin aimed his index finger square between the mascot's eyes. "This isn't over, moose."
By virtually any standard, the HMCS Moose Jaw was not a large ship. She could have fit on any high school hockey rink in Alberta, although that would leave little room for spectators. A petite size by the standards of military vessels, she couldn’t be any larger and still hydroplane. With the foils and her twin gas turbine engines, she flew almost two meters above the waves at speeds surpassing eighty knots. In the process she burned obscene quantities of distilled Canadian oil-shale.
As he stood below decks in the darkened CIC, surrounded by gently glowing flat screens and his combat department officers, McGavin appreciated how far his ship had come from the Canadian corvettes of yesteryear. The HMCS Moose Jaw barely trembled, the computer-controlled ailerons flying the ship straight as a bullet, despite the chop. Not even the engines, mounted on shock absorbers and sound baffling, disturbed the peaceful speed.
The first generation of Canadian corvettes, those brave hunters of U-boats in the stormy North Atlantic, had it much worse. They said that when they decommissioned the World War II corvettes in the 50s, the crew quarters still smelled like puke.
"There she is." PO Cheng zoomed the image. Their objective was still over the horizon, but their UAV had flown ahead to relay the video. "The most notorious yacht of our time. The Flower Pistol. Anybody want to guess what brings a ship full of environmental activists to the middle of the gyre?"
Everyone in the CIC chortled without looking up from their stations. McGavin let himself smile. "Five loons says it's the scuzz."
A vortex of ocean currents swirled around the North Pacific, trapping floating debris. Trash dumped off the coast of Asia or North America, eventually found its way into thirty-million square kilometers of placidly rotating water. During the twentieth century the gyre filled with plastics and other impervious materials. At its height, a million tonnes of manufactured waste floated in the gyre, photodecaying into progressively smaller and smaller pieces, but never quite disappearing. It choked out the flora and the fauna, and when the currents shifted, it covered the beaches of Hawaii and California with drifting piles of plastic filth.
And then one season the garbage vanished. Researchers quickly identified the culprit as Vibrio petrophagia, a mutated bacteria that formed a biofilm over plastics and broke the component polymers into simple sugars. It could completely digest a grocery bag in a matter of days.
For a few months the world panicked. There was talk of catastrophic power outages, the destruction of life-saving medical equipment, and food packaging rotting on grocery shelves.
But the bacteria never left the confines of the gyre, and the futility of quarantining thirty-million square kilometers made it hard to maintain a high level of anxiety. Experts paraded through the respectable media outlets, reassuring everyone that plastic decay could only occur within certain parameters of pH, salinity, and temperature. The Vibrio wasn’t going to eat your tupperware any more than E. coli was going to eat your twinkies.
So the world population put the scuzz out of their minds and found new ways to frighten themselves.
"Doesn't look like she's listing. Maybe it's engine trouble?" PO Cheng brought the UAV low, the tiny robot plane skimming the ocean in a wide arc across the Flower Pistol's bow. The video showed several figures at the rail, waving their arms over their heads.
"They're certainly acting like they're in trouble. We'll just have to ask them in person."
The HMCS Moose Jaw sank gently onto its hull, like a pelican skimming to a landing, and pulled alongside the Flower Pistol. Miles out of sight, the HMCS Moose Jaw's ROV circled the two ships. Like a snowmobile-sized version of the stealth corvette, its remote sonar and signals array maintaining the vigilance of a robotic bulldog.
McGavin and two armed marines from the deck department went onboard the Flower Pistol, all three wearing blue knee shorts and white bush hats that pinned up at the sides.
Sunburned men in tie-dyed shirts showed them into a media lounge. The men spoke in suspicious monosyllables, as if the Canadian sailors were cops instead of rescuers.
The lounge reflected the primary function of the yacht: public relations. It was a room meant for press conferences, seminars, and multi-media presentations. A dozen leather swivel chairs all faced a table and a wall-sized HD screen. After a permissive nod from McGavin, the marines sank into the luxurious seats and shared guilty smiles.
"Thank you for rescuing us, gentlemen."
The Navy men all stood as a woman walked into the room. She wore a loose cotton smock and hemp-fiber sandals. Her skin was pale almost to the point of being albino, and she wore her hair in a jumble of silver dreadlocks. "I'm Dr. Hans-Felding, the director of the One Ocean Foundation. But you can call me Cara."
McGavin took her hand. He noticed that Dr. Hans-Felding didn't quite make eye contact, but looked at an empty space several feet to his left. The corners of her mouth pinched as she talked. It gave McGavin the distinct impression she was high.
"I'm Commander McGavin. About that rescue. You don't seem to be sinking."
The doctor pointed at the ceiling and raised an eyebrow. "You hear that?"
"The engines. I'm afraid they're hopelessly wrecked."
"Ah." McGavin had grown used to life on a stealth ship. He had forgotten that most vessels made noise.
"It's the scuzz you see." Dr. Hans-Felding leaned against the table and wrung her hands. She spoke in an even monotone, as if she examined every word to make certain it sounded normal to the squares. "We were doing research into the interactions between photo-decay and bio-decay in polymer flotsam. After a few weeks the Vibrio mutation dispersed throughout the ship. It got into the engine gaskets. They tell me the Flower Pistol can never be repaired."
"We'll see. I have some people who are very good with engines." McGavin consulted the CDS. "We have a few hours before the storm hits. It gives us a little time to make a decision."
The CDS chimed for McGavin's attention and he held his finger up to warn Dr. Hans-Felding that he would be going into private communication. "What is it, now?"
"We just got another message." Lieutenant Fitcher's voice had the sardonic edge of someone who knew they had nothing even remotely funny to report.
"Oh, no. This is from the Americans. Shall I read the highlights?"
"Rear Admiral Jason Gurke of the USS Gerald Ford orders us to stand down for boarding. We are to surrender all passengers and crew of the Flower Pistol so they can face charges of international terrorism."
"Oh. Great." McGavin turned his gaze to the director of the One Ocean Foundation who gazed back at him with all the placid patience of a turtle. To Fitcher he said, "Okay. Give me intercepts."
"We're not going to turn them over?"
"Turning them over pretty much goes against our orders. Signal MARCOM and get their opinion. But I won't know if we have a choice in the matter until you give me the intercept calculations, Lieutenant."
Dr. Hans-Felding cleared her throat. "Is something the matter, commander?"
"Is a carrier strike group a serious matter, doctor?"
The two marines instinctively shifted into arms-ready posture, the same way that lifeguards reach for their whistle if you shout the word "shark."
"I don't know, is it?"
McGavin just glared at her and her civilian ignorance as GPS stats and logistical estimates flowed through the CDS. According to satellite data, the aircraft carrier USS Gerald Ford and its complement of frigates and destroyers were half a day out of port at Pearl Harbor, and just barely out of sortie range. The Ford could steam at a maximum of 30 knots, which wasn't impressive compared to the HMCS Moose Jaw in hydroplane mode, but a wing of F-35 Lightnings would make the corvette look like it was standing still.
It was a big ocean, and the HMCS Moose Jaw had the technology to blend in, but no stealth technology was perfect. The Americans would use signals intercept, satellite analysis of wave patterns, and the finest digital audio sensors in the world. If the F-35s could force the corvette into full-stealth displacement mode, then the destroyers could box the Canadians in a search pattern. Eventually the rattle of a bolt in its socket or the faint hum of a generator would give away their position.
It was a complicated tactical problem, one where all the players knew every possible move of every piece.
"Sir, I think we can stay out of the F-35's thirteen-hundred kilometer launch envelope."
"Just barely," McGavin commented, looking at the figures. If the fighter jets were out of the equation, then they could make it a straight shot to British Columbia, and worry about the American's blockading their shared coast when they got there.
"What's got the Americans so uptight?" Fitcher asked.
"They're fighting a civil war, Lieutenant. They're bound to be a bit trigger-happy, even with their friends."
"Get some mechanics over here to look at these engines. I'm setting the goal to pull out of here in twenty minutes." McGavin checked the CDS clock again, which now flashed with ominous deadlines. "It looks like we don't have that much time after all."
As it turned out, nothing could be done for the Flower Pistol. The scuzz had caused the engine to blow all its valves and crack two cylinders. By itself that might not have doomed the ship, but the pumps had also fallen to the voracious plastic-eater. Gaskets, casings, and tubing were riddled with holes and covered with a thin layer of slime. The yacht would not be able to stay afloat during the coming storm. Its days of harassing dolphin poachers and drilling rigs had come to a close.
McGavin made the decision to evacuate the crew and passengers, a third of whom were Canadian, and scuttle the Flower Pistol.
The environmental activists boarded the HMCS Moose Jaw, carrying bags of salvaged research equipment. They squinted at the fractured angles of the ship's radar-scattering surface, a design that made the Alma-class corvette look a little like Bizarro Superman's private yacht. Then they were ushered below decks to standing-room only accommodations in the food locker and the machine shop.
As the twilight faded, Dr. Hans-Felding came up to the bridge to watch her ship go down. The coxswain stood at the wheel, an Albertan with a bushy honkey-tonk mustache that pushed the boundaries of the regs for personal grooming. Two bridge watch officers scanned the horizon through windows angled like the windshield of a sports car.
"Come on in, Doctor." McGavin gestured an invitation.
"Should I be allowed on the bridge of a military vessel, commander? Isn't this secret?"
"Oh, no. Ship bridges haven't changed much in a hundred years. It's the CIC that's off limits." McGavin handed the doctor a pair of binoculars. "If you don't mind, I'll give the order now."
She put the rubber eyepiece cups to her dilated pupils. "Whenever you please. Will you be using a torpedo?"
"A ship-killer torpedo would set the Canadian taxpayers back about seven-million loonies. A rail gun armature and sabot only costs about four-hundred Canadian."
McGavin sent the order to fire. Down in the CIC a combat department officer revved the gas turbines to charge the seven megajoule capacitors. McGavin watched the deck gun extend from its camouflaged cupola, looking for all the world like the end of a giant tuning fork. The twin rails swung over the port side to point at the empty, drifting yacht.
"We could hit it from several hundred kilometers out, but we have a shorter recharge cycle at this range. You're going to want to cover your ears."
Dr. Hans-Felding lowered the binoculars, turned them in her hands, and seemed confused by the problem of how to look through the eyepiece and cover her ears at the same time.
Even through the armored glass of the bridge, the supersonic explosion was deafening. The stern of the Flower Pistol disappeared. There was a second concussion and a burst of flame, and only a dismembered abstraction of a ship remained above the surface.
In the fading twilight, a glowing shockwave radiated from the sinking yacht. The ghostly green shade whispered across the surface of the water, spreading like ripples for as far as they could see.
"That's the Vibrio petrophagia. It's bioluminescent. The gyre is thick with it." Dr. Hans-Felding spoke a little too loud, rubbing her index fingers in her ears.
"It's an odd little germ, isn't it?"
"Not really. You can always extract energy from hydrocarbon molecules if you know the trick. It didn't take long for micro-organisms to learn to digest wood cellulose, or the keratin of mammal hair. At its peak the gyre had millions of tons of thermoplastics. Most of it particalized by UV radiation. It was an evolution reactor. A tempting wealth of chemical energy. No. Nothing particularly bizarre about it."
They had to wait only a few moments before the last of the Flower Pistol sank beneath the waves.
Dr. Hans-Felding handed back the binoculars, and although her expression had not changed, McGavin thought he saw her eyes brimming with tears.
McGavin nodded to the coxswain, and the corvette turned its bow from the scuttled ship, accelerating on its aquatic wings.
The jolt threw McGavin from his bunk. He lay sprawled on the decking of his narrow stateroom, a limb touching nearly every wall. He blinked in the darkness, watching stars dance before his eyes. The plasma-screen picture frame above his bunk glowed dimly in lights-out mode. It flashed a group photo of his first tour, his grinning face a pink dot amid the jumble of blue shirts that crowded the deck of the HMCS Regina. The image dissolved into the grim face of his father, a man who had made his living driving semis on ice-roads, back when the lakes froze on a regular basis.
And then the insistent graphics of the CDS brought him back to the land of wakefulness.
"Are you up, Commander?" It was the voice of Lt. Khan, who had the third shift night watch.
"I guess so. We're not moving." It wasn't a question. He could feel the hull drifting and bobbing lazily with the waves. A hydroplane never had to do anything with the waves while it flew.
"No, sir. We're dead in the water, sir. It's a hydraulics failure, sir."
On deck, it was as dark as only the middle of the Pacific could be, thousands of kilometers from any streetlight. Around the HMCS Moose Jaw it was anything but peaceful. The entire marine engineering department, roused from their bunks, scrambled to assess the situation. They had the hydroplanes folded up, the maintenance panels flapping open, utility lamps dividing the darkness into confusing shadow and blinding light. Beneath the lapping surface, the murky search beams of wetsuit divers stabbed at the hull.
"It's the scuzz." PO Nelson held a tangled length of hydraulics mechanism. "Popped a leak in the vinyl tubing. Ruined some gaskets. You can see the bio-film, right there."
McGavin peered at a sticky gelatin substance in the beam of a pocket LED light. "That was quick. We were in the gyre waters, what, twenty-six hours?"
"It was long enough, Commander." Dr. Hans-Felding emerged from the deck hatch, escorted by marines and wearing what appeared to be silk pajamas. "How long does it take for a steak to go bad?"
"She's right, sir," said PO Nelson. "With these design tolerances it doesn't take much. Trim off a fraction of a millimeter and the whole system blows."
"Since you're the expert, doctor, what do you think we should do about this?"
Dr. Hans-Felding held her pajamas around her throat, her white dreadlocks twitching like serpents in the night breeze. "You could try coating replacement parts with anti-bacterial agents. Honey, for instance. Bathroom hand-soap. Whatever you have on hand."
"Do you think that will work?"
"No." Her lips pinched and crawled in a wry zigzag. "To quote Jeff Goldblum, 'Life finds a way. Life finds a way."
"Well, that's a big help doctor. You can go back to sleep now, we'll take care of this."
"One more thing, commander."
"What's your hull made of?"
"Held together by what?"
"That's classified." McGavin scowled. She had just given him something new to worry about.
"I just hope it's an epoxy resin. If it were a polyester substrate you would have significantly less time. Vibrio has had a good deal of practice on that particular molecule. Goodnight, commander." The marines closed the deck hatch after her.
The CDS lit up again with Lt. Khan. "Sir, we just got a coded signal from MARCOM."
"Finally. What are our orders?"
"Under no circumstances are we to surrender the rescued civilians to the American forces. We are not to fire unless fired upon first. All means are authorized to ensure the safe return of our passengers and their effects to Canadian territory."
McGavin went cold. MARCOM had just given him authorization to resist the superior forces of a trusted ally. And with the hydroplanes out of commission they weren't nearly fast enough to outrun the pursuing carrier group's intercept course. No, not nearly fast enough.
"Lieutenant, I'm going to need those orders printed up and placed in my personal files so I'll have it for the court martial."
"And while you're there, get out the file titled 'Kick the Cowboy.'"
"It's a contingency plan in my personal paper files. You can't miss it."
"It isn't the sort of thing you would want to turn up during a MARCOM data audit." McGavin left the engineers to their work, and leapt down the deck hatch. In a moment he had caught up to Dr. Hans-Felding who shuffled leisurely back to her temporary berth on the floor of the mess.
She turned and stopped in the middle of the narrow passage, effectively blocking it despite her slight frame.
"No, keep walking, doctor. I'll follow you." As she continued on her way, McGavin found himself talking to the back of her tangled dreads. "We've been given permission to use force against the Americans. To keep you safe, eh? You must have some pretty important friends in Ottawa if they're willing to risk war with the big guys to the south."
"The One Ocean Foundation has many allies." Her shoulders shrugged beneath the silk.
"Would the American insurgents be allies of yours?"
"They call themselves The People, commander."
"I will take that as a 'yes.'"
They came to the mess, the dinner benches all packed away against the walls. The floor now sported a calico patchwork of sleeping forms and piles of luggage.
"So you know what was most odd about the orders we just got? No? They didn't just mention you. They specifically mentioned protecting your effects." McGavin stepped into the piles of sleeping bodies. He grabbed the bag that had been placed in the center of the room, the bag that wasn't next to anyone in particular, but could be watched by everyone.
As Dr. Hans-Felding cried out and sleeping forms sat bolt upright in their blankets, McGavin unzipped the bag and extracted the glass cylinder inside.
A jellyfish pulsed languidly, floating in the specimen bottle like an alien ghost. And inside its transparent guts a photochemical light glowed.
"The Vibrio has mutated again." Dr. Hans-Felding took the jellyfish from McGavin and gently put it back into the bag. "Ctenophores such as this often mistake particalized plastics for micro-plankton. They swallow the tiny flakes of polymer, and until the Vibrio mutated, the plastics stayed there."
"But not anymore. They're symbiotic."
"Exactly, commander. It's like the symbiotic bacteria in the guts of termites. The ctenophore nurtures the Vibrio and in return the Vibrio nourishes the ctenophore."
"But why are the Americans so afraid of this? Are you planning on weaponizing it?"
"Not a weapon. A new link in the nutrient cycle. Imagine if cockroaches could eat your old milk jugs. Or what if leafcutter ants cut up the bottle caps littering roadsides? The Vibrio particularly likes polyethylene. It’s just carbon and hydrogen with surprisingly few additives."
"I’m just a simple sailor, but this sounds like monkeying with nature."
"This is a new paradigm for our interaction with nature. The Americans are dealing with too much chaos right now. They aren't ready for this yet."
"But Ottawa is."
The doctor's eyes snapped to McGavin's with razor-sharp clarity. For the first time, she gave him her complete and total attention. "Canada is in a position to evolve into the new society. The People have had their eyes on Canada for a while now. There will be no more dichotomy between the natural and the manufactured. There will be no more division between the global and the individual. All society, all culture, all nature, and all labor will link into a single cooperative cycle."
As he looked into the doctor's dilated eyes, the pupils as large and black as the Pacific Trench, McGavin realized that his government was totally batshit for supporting this woman. But then again, McGavin wouldn't turn his worst enemy over to the Americans and their torture camps.
"Okay. Whatever. You can play political games all you want. I'm just going to try to keep us alive for the next ten hours." McGavin stepped over sullenly staring activists on his way back to the corridor. "Just stay below decks and do what you're told. If you actually survive the American bombing run, the life rafts are on deck."
"Thanks for your help, again, commander," Dr. Hans-Felding called after him. Once again she wasn't quite looking at him.
McGavin had his hands thrust deep in his pockets as he walked back to the bridge. He passed the crew quarters, a long room stacked with bunks as tight as a train's sleeper car. He caught a glimpse of the lounge as he passed, three men seated at a table that usually hosted a twenty-four hour poker tournament.
McGavin stopped. Two of the men at the table he knew. The third was a stranger.
McGavin retraced his steps and poked his head in the door. "Who the hell is that?"
His two crewmen, their faces already morose, took on a guilty pallor. "That's Bruce. He's a professional body-builder."
"Yes, I could have guessed that. The question is why this particular body-builder is on my ship in the middle of the Pacific. Hmmm?" The commander crossed his arms, adopting an authoritarian demeanor that he rarely had to employ on a ship crewed by highly motived and educated Canadians.
"We stowed him away, sir."
Bruce looked at his meaty lap, too scared to make eye contact with the commander.
McGavin deduced the details of their plot in a sudden rush. "Good God. Deuce the Moose was actually Bruce the Moose. You men stowed this guy away, on a four-week patrol, just so you could put him in a moose suit and arm-wrestle me?"
Even for a stealth ship the following silence was remarkable.
"Sir, we were going to put him ashore at Prince Rupert tomorrow. Well, would have been today, if we hadn't been diverted."
McGavin ran his fingers through his already sleep-tousled hair. "You realize what sort of a position this puts me in, don't you? If I report this to MARCOM you would all get courtmartialed. If I don't report this and the Americans sink us, Bruce's family will never know what happened to him. And that's hardly fair, is it?"
Bruce's head shot up and beads of sweat formed on his veiny forehead. They apparently hadn't explained to him the seriousness of the situation.
"You're right, sir. We're sorry."
"Listen, here's what you do. Put Bruce's ID in a waterproof bottle and hang it around his neck. Then put him in one of the foam vests. That way, when we go down, they'll be able to retrieve and identify the body."
McGavin left them with Bruce fumbling with sweaty fingers to pull out his wallet.
The commander whistled cheerily as he climbed the ladder to the bridge.
Revenge was sweet.
With a hot cup of coffee in his hands, McGavin stood in the CIC, watching the status reports. The Americans had launched their F-35s early. The two planes didn't have the range for the estimated round trip to the corvette and back to the carrier, but Admiral Gurke had sent his destroyer screen ahead. It meant that the destroyers and their search helicopters would be able to retrieve the pilots, but only after the F-35s ran out of gas and fell out of the sky like so much steel.
McGavin couldn't help but feel a little flattered that the Americans were throwing away a couple hundred million USD for the express purpose of killing him.
"Lieutenant, radio the Ford. Let's see if I can't talk some sense into the admiral."
The CIC smelled like sweaty, nervous people in a confined space. After a couple minutes of negotiation, they opened a direct line of communication between Commander McGavin and Admiral Gurke.
"Good morning, commander," the admiral said with the hi-fi clarity of a digital communications link. "Would it do any good to re-iterate my order to stand down for boarding?"
"No, sir. I'm afraid I have directly contradictory orders."
"I would think that the two Lightnings heading your way would constitute a more direct chain of command."
"Admiral, I'm begging you to rethink this. There's no point in opening hostilities with Canada. Let our governments talk through this."
The communications channel rang with laughter. "Well, well, well. The Canuck is dictating terms. Listen up, boy. We ain't too scared about reprisals from Canada."
McGavin ground his teeth together. Most of the time he was even-tempered, even by Canadian standards. But there was a part of him that was also "Maniac McGavin," the terror of the rink, and by God he was a Canadian and a Navy man to boot. McGavin found himself rising to the American's insult. "Admiral, I know how substandard your school system is, so I'll go over a little history with you. America has attacked Canada before. In 1775 we slaughtered your General Montgomery. And the drubbing we gave General Hull in 1812 rates as one of the most embarrassing defeats in military history. Actually, we've spanked you every time you came North of the border, so I honestly don't know why you would come begging for more."
During the shocked pause that followed, McGavin could hear a couple of his people stifling laughs.
"You goddamn snowback," growled the two-star admiral. "This was your warning and you blew it!"
"No admiral, I warned you." But the Americans had already cut the connection and never heard McGavin's reply.
Immediately the combat department lit up with warnings. Voices rang in the confined space of the CIC.
"Sir! The Americans have launched weapons! They're homing on the communication carrier wave!"
"Missiles on their way, sir!"
McGavin sipped from his coffee. "Well. I guess that's it then."
Admiral Gurke left the CSD and walked out on the deck of the USS Gerald Ford. He stood at the railing, looking out at sea and the walls of storm clouds poised to wash over his ship. At his back, a flat plane of steel stretched as far as a Dallas mall parking lot, but instead of hybrid SUVs and half-ton electrics, fighter jets squatted wingtip to wingtip.
He had let the Canadian commander get to him, and it was little consolation that the man was probably dead by now. But they had firm intelligence that the Canadians had taken aboard a hazardous bio-weapon and a watch-list terrorist with advanced gene-engineering know-how. The admiral had only done what he had to do.
His XO, a full naval captain from Ohio, pinged him. "Bad news, admiral."
"Bad news? Isn't it always bad news?"
"The Lightnings have made a visual sweep of the strike area. They've confirmed that they destroyed an ROV signals decoy."
"Really? So we blew up a toy boat and the real one could be anywhere?" So the Canuck wasn't dead. Surprisingly, the admiral felt a little relieved and a little impressed. "Give me estimates of the Canucks' possible location based on their last confirmed location. Then scramble everything into a search grid."
"Considering the top speed of the Alma-class corvettes, we're looking at quite a large search area."
"We'll find them. The homeland is counting on us."
Admiral Gurke leaned on the railing with his elbows locked and slipped on his General MacArthur sunglasses. Instead of a short skirmish it looked like there would be a protracted search and destroy mission. In a moment he would go inside and coordinate the long arm of American naval power in the Pacific.
It had been hard on the American Navy, and Gurke in particular, to watch as the hippies and thought-terrorists undermined his homeland. It was an ugly sort of conflict, with as much info-war and culture jamming as actual bloodshed. The hippies wanted to turn America into a land of Satanists and rag-bound nomads, and there wasn't a damn thing the Navy could do about it.
Until now. Now Gurke had an actual target to shoot at. Actual naval warfare against an actual ship. They would pin down that stealth corvette like an old fashioned U-boat, and then the firepower of the U.S. Navy would bring the bio-terrorists to justice.
A couple stories directly beneath him a strange glinting caught his eye. At first he thought it was a bit of flotsam, perhaps some waste barrels that his men had thrown overboard. But the perspective wasn't right.
He squinted through his sunglasses. It looked almost like a pair of tuning fork prongs, swinging across the water and pointing at his ship.
And then he saw the slight, almost imperceptible shimmer of the air, that described the outline of a stealth corvette.
"All hands to battle stations!" he shouted into the data channels. "The Canadians are off our starboard side! They're using optical camo!"
The aircraft carrier had close defense machine guns designed to repel precisely this sort of threat, but the men and women who manned them were below decks doing their daily jobs, mopping floors and restocking vending machines.
The Canadian railgun fired. Gurke clearly heard the sound of the supersonic sabot entering one side of his carrier and exploding out the other. Both the virtual and real world howled with alarms.
It was absurd. The world hadn't seen significant ship to ship combat since the Battle of Jutland. And that tiny boat was attacking the projection of American military power from a distance of mere feet.
The report of the railgun assaulted Gurke's eardrum again. Through the ringing he could barely hear his XO shouting something about reactor coolant.
He was running for the nearest close defense weapon station as the corvette's ASW grenades hit the flight deck.
They've re-fused their anti-submarine weapons to work as mortars, Gurke observed with awe.
The cannisters bounced once and then exploded.
Gurke never felt the shockwaves hit him.
"What else have we got targeted?" McGavin looked over PO Cheng's shoulder.
"Everything over the horizon. They have an Aegis cruiser at 10km and another at 40km. Anything else will require a couple minutes recharge time on the railgun."
"The Aegis are the bigger threat. Take them out, and leave the Ford with a ship killer torpedo before we pull out. We'll keep one of the ship killers if they manage a pursuit."
Even below decks they could hear the tremblings of the railgun as it reaped its murderous harvest.
Operation Kick the Cowboy was something that McGavin had drawn up shortly after he took command of the HMCS Moose Jaw, a sort of intellectual exercise should hostilities ever break out with the United States. As he learned the stealth ship's capabilities, he realized that it could do more than just coastal patrol and defense. The Alma-class corvettes were in effect the greatest ambush weapon since the Trident submarine.
Once he received the order to use force against the Americans, McGavin had altered course to intercept the carrier. With the decoy ROV continuing on a straight path to Canada, the HMCS Moose Jaw proceeded in full stealth mode. The crew padded silently on rubber flooring. The cooks halted preparation of dinner so as not to bang any pans together. The hot engine exhaust vented at water level.
And when they got within a hundred kilometers, they switched to battery power, turned off the propellers, and extended a 200 meter electro-kinetic ribbon that rippled like the tail of a crocodile. It drove them through the water with absolute, perfect silence.
McGavin pinged PO Nelson. "How're the hydrofoils coming?"
"Give me thirty seconds." Nelson and his men were on deck despite the firefight, wearing optical camo ponchos and ear protection. "Just have to bolt the service panels back on."
"Excellent." McGavin gave the order to reel in the propulsion ribbon, then asked Nelson, "Did you protect the gaskets like Dr. Hans-Felding suggested?"
"Yeah. Some of her hippies had this organic shampoo. We just smeared that all over."
"You think that will work?"
"Why the hell not?"
Seventy-two seconds after beginning the engagement, the HMCS Moose Jaw peeled away, flying home across the waves to mother Canada. Behind them, the USS Gerald Ford listed noticeably to port, and against the horizon, columns of black smoke marked the position of sinking ships.
McGavin stood on the pier as his boat sat in drydock, his crew scrubbing the hull with pressure hoses of anti-bacterial detergent. He had given the order that no-one had shore leave until every surface had been cleaned of every trace of the scuzz. He hadn't said it explicitly, but he had made it clear that the order extended to Bruce the bodybuilder. At the moment, Bruce was in the crawlspace just above the keel, scrubbing joists with a toothbrush and bilgewater.
From where he stood, McGavin could see the Olympic peninsula across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. That hazy coast was a country that he had seriously humiliated, and it looked like he would get away with it. The final death count had been high for an engagement between allies, but low for a war.
"Do you have a moment, commander?"
He turned to see Dr. Hans-Felding. He noticed that she didn't have handcuffs, but the MPs standing behind her kept their hands close to their sidearms.
"Sure, doctor. Or should I say, Cara?"
"I think that's the first time you called me by my first name."
"First time for everything." He gave her a weak grin.
"I just wanted to thank you for bringing me and my crew safely to Canada."
"Nothing to thank. Just following orders. How's Canada treating you?"
"They're taking us to Ottawa. I think we'll have some talking to do with the authorities, but they've already granted the non-Canadians political asylum."
"I'm glad," McGavin said, and he figured he meant it. "How much time have I got before you evolve me into your 'new society?'"
"Not much longer." Her eyes seemed to watch a spot of pier to McGavin's left. "Don't worry. It won't be so bad when it happens. Think of Canada as an evolution reactor. For culture and economy." She bobbed her head and silver dreadlocks swished. "Good day, John. And thank you again."
When she left, McGavin went back to watching his crew clean the boat. As he stood there, he began to formulate a plan to get that stupid moose once and for all.
Matthew Bey is a sci-fi writer living in Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of venues and he is actively seeking an undeserved Campbell Award 2012 nomination. He is a creator of the free science fiction magazine Space Squid as well as the Helmut Finch mythos.