A Jack Ferrell Adventure
The floor of the Philippine Sea
His only portal into this silent world of perpetual darkness came from a cone of light extending ninety meters into the black abyss. The sphere of titanium he and the two-man crew huddled inside of provided the only protection from the immense pressure at this extreme depth. Mounted on the front of the deep-submergence vehicle, or DSV, two manipulator arms, resembling the front legs of a praying mantis, hung secured out of the way of his viewing port.
He placed his full confidence in the Navy’s most advanced manned deep-ocean research submersible and checked his watch. Alvin had been descending for an hour and a half. The bottom had to be coming up soon.
Commander Carl Richards who piloted the DSV said to Jack, “Relax, we’re almost there.”
Jack averted his gaze from the port in front of him. “You noticed me glance at my watch?”
Richards continued to study his instruments. “You know what they say about a watched pot. You’re better off enjoying the view and forgetting about the time. That’s my job.”
Jack refocused his attention, squinting into the abyss. “I’m anxious to see her but I’m far from bored. This is one trip I never dreamed I’d be making, and wouldn’t be now if Admiral Casey hadn’t made it possible.”
“You’re indeed lucky,” Richards said. “Extremely lucky. The USS Indianapolis is designated a war grave. No one is allowed to explore or salvage the wreckage except the military. In fact, the exact location of her is classified a secret.”
“How deep are we?”
“Passing eighteen thousand feet.” Richards spoke into his mic, a status report to the support vessel Atlantis IV hovering on the surface, as much as in response to Jack’s question. “The ship should be coming into view any minute.”
Jack peered into the gloom at the farthest reach of Alvin’s LED light array and watched the USS Indianapolis materialize out of the darkness a section at a time. The wreckage was too large for the lights to illuminate all of the debris at one time.
He took a deep breath in response to the cruiser’s remains unveiled before him. “Unbelievable.”
“I thought the same thing the first time I saw her. As you can see, many of the ship’s guns are still in place.”
Twin barrels aimed skyward appeared in the gloom as though prepared for battle. Jack pointed, the tip of his finger tapping the glass he peered through. “Those are the forty-millimeter antiaircraft guns, aren’t they?”
“Still loaded and ready to rock and roll, though I doubt they’ll fire.” Richards chuckled at his apparent attempt at humor. “I’ll take you over the eight-inch gun turret mounted on the stern. The two forward turrets broke off, along with a large portion of the bow, before the ship sank. They lay a mile and a half east of this location.”
Jack shook his head in disbelief at the twisted armor plating. “It’s incredible she remained afloat as long as she did when you see the amount of damage those torpedoes did to her hull.”
“You know the story?” The question came from Ed Ramsey, the engineer seated at the porthole on the opposite side of Commander Richards.
Jack kept his face pressed to the viewing port; his gaze glued to the surreal scene unfolding before his eyes. “Everyone who has watched the movie Jaws knows the story. Though Quint failed to point out that, in addition to shark attacks, many of the men who went into the water succumbed to injuries they suffered in the explosions aboard ship, as well as drowning, dehydration, exposure, and salt poisoning from drinking sea water.”
“I’ve read the official file on the Navy’s findings, survivor accounts included,” Richards said. “Delirium and hallucinations even caused sailors to kill themselves. Some stabbed and drowned shipmates who were believed to be the enemy. But the shark threat was real enough and that’s what everyone remembers.”
“Oceanic whitetips being the main culprits,” Jack added. “Undoubtedly some tigers, too. But they would most certainly have fed on the corpses first.”
He studied the dead ship and pictured the crew adrift in the sea; bunched together in tight groups spread out over a hundred miles of open ocean. He heard their screams pierce the night, imagined sailors without lifejackets, desperate to survive, stripping the dead of theirs. Everyone thirsty. Dorsal fins slicing the water. Each man praying, wondering if he would be taken next.
So many had.
He pinched his lids closed, but couldn’t rid himself of the vision.
Nothing would take their faces away.
When he opened his eyes, more of the cruiser came into view. He leaned close to the glass and studied the wreckage. “Quint might have had a much different story if the sinking happened today. Due to the long-line commercial fishing industry and the shark fin trade in Asia, oceanic whitetips have all but vanished from these waters.”
Ramsey said, “I understand that’s why you’re on this dive?”
“Partly,” Jack said. “Some of my colleagues in the field consider me an authority on sharks. It’s only fitting I get a first-hand look at the disaster that gave the creatures a bad name.”
“The sharks gave themselves the bad name.”
Jack couldn’t entirely disagree with the man. Sharks were certainly savage killers.
He said, “That’s one way of looking at it. But they were here millions of years before man stood upright and roamed the continents. We’re the trespassers in their environment; they’re only doing what they’ve evolved to do. That’s to eat when a food source presents itself.”
“Like a bunch of sailors thrashing around in the water.”
Asking or telling? Jack wondered.
He said, “Oceanic whitetips are frequently seen in the Red Sea, off the Cayman Islands, and around Hawaii. But the sightings are usually lone individuals or very small schools called shivers. Cat Island in the Bahamas appears to be the last place on earth where large concentrations of the species can be found. Though ten years of tagging has shown far fewer inhabit those waters than researchers first thought. We all know it’s impossible to rewind time and recapture what’s been lost, but we have to try. The world believed the unspoiled seas of the 1950s teemed with an inexhaustible supply of fish, but now we can’t comprehend that naïve idea.”
The explanation garnered a grunt from Ramsey and nothing more.
It seemed the man’s mind was made up.
Jack let it go.
Richards said, “We’re coming up on the ship’s bell.”
A dozen feet ahead, the artifact lay visible in the pool of light illuminating the twisted metal.
He felt Alvin hover, and watched as the pilot maneuvered the right arm’s pincers to almost the full length of the boom, grasp the bell, and pluck the object free of the wreckage with the care of a loving mother lifting her baby from its crib.
As deftly as the manipulator arm had seized the prize, it withdrew and deposited the artifact into a metal bin mounted on the DSV’s outer skin.
“Egg is in the basket,” Richards relayed into his mic. “Leaving the Indy and making a pass over the debris field.”
Jack leaned back and rubbed the strain from his eyes. The entire operation was being viewed by the men and women crowded around the live digital feed displayed on monitors in the lab aboard the support vessel. A visual documentation of the dive from beginning to end.
The next best thing to being there.
Which made what he was doing all that more special. Nothing compared to cruising the bottom of the ocean eighteen-thousand feet down and watching it unfold before him.
A surrealistic adventure come true.
After a few seconds of quiet, Richards asked, “What do you think of her, Doctor Ferrell? Is the Indy everything you imagined?”
He struggled for the words to do justice to his overwhelming elation. Impossible to describe in the moment.
He met Commander Richards’ gaze. “She’s so much more.”
A pathetic understatement, he realized.
He faced the viewing port. Nine hundred men went into the water. Four and a half days later, three hundred and sixteen men came out of the sea alive.
Quint had been technically correct.
Sharks took the rest.
Waikiki Beach, Oahu, Hawaii
Fifteen-year-old Amy Watson straddled her surfboard riding up and down on the ocean swells rolling under her. Her long legs dangled freely beneath the surface of the clear water. Her waist-length brown hair, together with her long-sleeved rash guard, protected her from the worst of the mid-March sun.
Though early in the year, the daytime temperatures hovered in the low eighties. Had for several days. And with no wind and a near cloudless blue sky, the weather felt plenty hot. She reached down beside her and splashed water on her face and body until she was soaked.
She’d grown up a block from Laguna Beach and felt at ease in the water. Though she respected the dangers lurking in the depths, she had no real fear of them. In Southern California or here on Oahu; her home for the past three years. A line of surfers extended the length of the beach in both directions. Six floated astraddle boards no more than fifty feet away from her, including Alika, the cute seventeen-year-old boy she met on the beach an hour earlier.
She waved. “Alika.”
The boy dropped to his stomach and paddled in her direction. Hair nearly as long as hers and shiny black, clung to his brown skin. He sat up, spun his board, and drifted another couple of feet.
He shook the water from his hair, spattering her in the process, and combed it back with his fingers. “What’s up?”
She liked the way the drops rolled off his muscled shoulders and arms and down his flat stomach. And when she peered into his dark eyes, she lost herself in them in a way she hadn’t with any of the other boys she had met.
Tingling with nervous excitement, she asked, “Would you like to go to an Easter costume party next weekend? My friend Kayla has invited a few friends over and I thought it would be fun if you came.”
He matched her rhythm in the swells. “Do I have to wear a bunny suit?”
She laughed. “You can if you want. Kayla thought it would be fun to have everyone wear a costume. She’s dressing up as a colored egg. I’ll be a mermaid. It’s not exactly an Easter costume, but…”
“That I’d like to see. I’ll go dressed as a Hawaiian warrior. But only if you promise—”
A high-pitched scream cut him off. Alika turned toward the sound as she scanned the string of surfers in the group close to them.
Four were paddling for shore, arms flailing to catch a wave. Behind them, a yellow board rode up and over a swell, its rider gone.
Her mind was mired in confusion.
And apparently so was Alika’s because he sat completely still, staring across the water.
Then the lone board began to move against the flow of the waves, towed by the ankle leash.
“Shark,” Alika yelled.
His wild eyes met hers an instant before he dropped onto his stomach and began paddling toward shore.
His foot brushed her leg, turning her broadside into an oncoming wave that rolled her into the water. Separated from her surfboard, connected only by the leash Velcroed around her ankle, she sputtered to the surface. She could swim like a fish. That wasn’t what worried her.
For the first time, she felt fear she hadn’t believed possible.
Adrenaline shot through her body, urging her back onto her board. She reeled it in by the tether and grabbed hold, only to be bumped off.
At first, she thought she may have merely lost her grip in her frantic splashing to climb back on. She tried again and this time was jerked under water. There was no pain. Only a violent tug on her left leg.
She watched a dark shape glide away. Not huge, but big enough. Maybe six feet long.
Oh my God.
And then she saw a second shape.
This one even larger.
Pain and panic set in at the same time.
Her head and arms burst from the surface amid overwhelming desperation for survival. Gasping for air, she screamed and groped for her board, and this time pulled it under her. With no thought to the severity of her injuries, she paddled toward shore no more than fifty yards away.
A dorsal fin sliced the water in front of her.
Another broke the surface a second later.
She could see a line of white where the surge washed up onto the beach. She could see people standing on the sand, their eyes turned toward her, arms waving her ashore, fingers pointing. She could hear their yells.
Shock threatened to overtake her.
She didn’t let it.
A wave rolled under her and she stayed with it. Flat on her stomach, she rode it toward shore.
The Philippine Sea
Jack stood on the deck of Atlantis IV and stared at the surface of the Pacific. Behind him a team of technicians swarmed over Alvin checking and rechecking every component. Standard procedure after a dive the magnitude of the one he had made. For the past ten minutes, he tried to imagine the horrors of war that took place on these now tranquil waters. Three and a half miles beneath him lay a grim reminder.
And he’d gotten a close-up look at reality.
One he’d never forget.
“Have you seen any?”
Jack turned at the sound of Richards’ voice. “What’s that?”
“Sharks. Have you seen any?”
“Not a one. But then I haven’t exactly been looking.”
Richards pointed a stout cigar at the water. “Hard to imagine, isn’t it—all those men cast adrift out there?”
Jack estimated Richards’ age to be thirtysomething. His ruddy complexion and the fat stogie made Alvin’s pilot look older. He scanned the water. “No one can. Except those men who survived it.”
Richards puffed and exhaled a blue cloud. “Ed kind of got under your skin, didn’t he?”
“Maybe a little. I got the feeling he resented me being along on the dive.”
“Or perhaps your connection with Admiral Casey.”
“Whatever his problem is, it’s no big deal.”
“I’m glad to hear that. He can be a jerk at times, but he’s a good man.”
“I never thought otherwise.”
Jack noticed a sailor he didn’t know by name, approach. A determined stride. Strictly business. He gave him his full attention.
“Doctor Ferrell, sir.” The sailor started to say more but Jack stopped him with a raised palm.
“I’m not a sir. Call me Jack.”
“Yes, sir. Captain Conner needs to speak to you. She’s on the bridge.”
“Thank you. I’ll be right there.”
“I’ll let the captain know.” The sailor strode away with the same purposeful stride.
Richards pulled the cigar from his mouth and looked at Jack. “Better not keep the captain waiting.”
“I don’t plan to.”
Jack climbed the stairs to the bridge and found Captain Cheryl Conner seated, staring through the windscreen. She turned her piercing gray eyes at his approach. He didn’t waste his time saluting or standing at attention. He wasn’t military.
“You asked to see me, Captain?”
Her attention on him, she said, “We received a message from the director of the NOAA office on Oahu.”
“Your boss requested you return immediately. Arrangements have been made to have a seaplane pick you up and fly you to Manila where you’ll catch a commercial flight back to Oahu.”
“I assume the director has a ticket waiting for me?”
Conner handed him a sheet of paper. “Here’s your itinerary.”
Jack looked it over and checked his watch. “How long do I have before the plane gets here?”
“A couple hours.”
“I don’t understand the urgency. Did she mention what was so important?”
“No. Only that she needs you back there right away.”
He thought it odd that his boss chose to keep him guessing, but figured she had her reasons for not passing along more information.
“Thank you, Captain. I’ll be ready.”
He stepped from the bridge, unable to imagine what was so vitally important it had O’Connell chomping at the bit. He didn’t like having to leave Atlantis IV so soon, but he knew his duty and he felt he owed her. She had been more than understanding when she allowed him time away from his obligations to NOAA so he could sail the islands with Cherise Venetta. Time they used to heal the spirit. To get to know each other and themselves.
Admiral Casey and a new alliance. Cherise, who accepted his deep feelings for her and hers for him, while at the same time recognizing each other’s need for independence. A boat to replace the one he’d lost…a renewed focus.
Much had changed for him in the past six months.
All of it good.
A new lease on life.
That’s how he viewed it.
Though the romantic relationship had settled into one of random lust-filled rendezvous, he and Cherise had an understanding.
One they were both comfortable with.
And now this. The rare opportunity to see the USS Indianapolis up close and pay his respects to the men who went down with the ship; not to mention, those who perished in the sea; as well as those who lived.
All of them heroes.
When they left the island of Tinian, their mission complete, they had no idea what awaited them.
Any more than he did.
2021 William Nikkel; reprinted with permission from SUSPENSE PUBLISHING; an imprint of SUSPENSE MAGAZINE
William Nikkel is the author of ten Jack Ferrell novels and two steampunk westerns featuring his latest hero Max Traver. A former homicide detective and S.W.A.T. team member for the Kern County Sheriff’s Department in Bakersfield, California, William is an amateur scuba enthusiast, gold prospector, and wildlife artist who can be found just about anywhere. He and his wife Karen divide their time between Northern California and Maui, Hawaii.
To learn more about the author and his work, please visit his website.