In winter the Kola Peninsula is a land of frozen granite mountains and snow-covered glacial valleys. Fifty years ago Allied merchant ships fought Nazi U-boats and numbing arctic cold crossing the North Sea to reach the port of Murmansk on Kola’s northern coast carrying supplies to the Soviet army resisting Adolf Hitler. They were cheered when they limped into the harbor, battle-scarred and weary, lighter only for the dead they had left in the slate gray waves along the way.
Captain Vassily Kalik stood in the control center of the Soviet Northern Fleet’s main submarine base at Kola Bay, only miles from his boyhood harbor, remembering the cheers. He and the other boys out gathering wood for fuel would race back from the pine forests to help their mothers and the old scarf-draped babushkas pass cargo hand over hand in a line that stretched all the way from the ship to a waiting convoy of trucks. Kalik fancied that the bright new rifles and the stubby green grenades the ships brought would find their way to his father’s regiment fighting outside Leningrad. State atheism aside, Kalik was a religious boy who believed in fate and the power of God. He thought about signing his name to a weapon, as one might a letter, hoping that would somehow help it find its way into his father’s hands. He didn’t, and his father never came home. More than once over the years, as the boy grew into a man, he wondered if there could have been a connection.
The fleet main submarine base was built right into the icy mountains surrounding Kola Bay. Engineers had carved out the interiors of the granite monoliths, and the resulting network of watery chambers housed both submarines and the equivalent of a small city to service them. The subs entered and left through tunnels cut into the base of the mountains. The command staff observed their comings and goings from a cantilevered control center jutting out of the sheer cliff face overhead. The panoramic view from the center stretched from the outdoor pens to the misty horizon where the steel blue Barents Sea met the pale northern sky. Beyond that lay the polar ice cap, easily accessible to the ballistic missile and attack submarines that left Kola Bay regularly to lurk beneath it.
Kalik picked up a pair of binoculars and scanned the concrete pens below. Dark green water lapped at a humpbacked Delta IV. A fat, stubby Typhoon with its 25 meter beam was being serviced at one of the dockside stations and he counted a Victor III and two Alfas floating in parallel pens. Beyond these his own ship waited, the sleek Akula with the distinctive T type sonar pod mounted on top of her rear fin. Akula was the newest Soviet attack sub, and her speed and quieting were justifiably giving the Americans a fit. Akula. In English the name meant “shark.” Kalik smiled. That she was. That she was.
“Comrade Captain? Senior Lieutenant Volkov radios that preparations for sailing are almost complete.”
Kalik located the source of the voice in the busy room, a young radio operator sitting before an instrument console. “Tell him I’m on my way.” The operator spun his chair back around to his console to comply, but Kalik had an afterthought. “What about Red Dawn?” he asked.
“They are holding, Comrade Captain. At least half an hour.”
Kalik took up the glasses again and swung his gaze past Akula to the reason he and his sub were in Kola Bay. He saw what the American satellites would see, looking down as they assuredly were: just an aging, nondescript Tango class diesel submarine commissioned over twenty years earlier. No glamour, no fancy electronics masts, nothing to suggest that her familiar lines harbored anything unusual. But appearances were deceiving. Kalik was sure that right now Red Dawn was inarguably the most important submarine in the world.
A knot of technicians wearing thick yellow parkas stood by Red Dawn’s aft hatch arguing or conferring—it was often hard to tell the difference—with the rest of the scientific team as they had done ad infinitum during the months of preparation, refit, and preliminary testing. As usual, the elderly Nobel laureate, Dr. Karl Ligichev, was at the center of the knot. Ligichev was chief scientist at the Kronsky Naval Institute and solely in charge of this project. Even from this distance, Kalik could spot the mane of white hair that Ligichev combed straight back from his widow’s peak like some manic conductor. Next to him was his daughter, Dr. Ivanna Ligichova, whose bold mane of jet black hair was as thick and straight as her father’s. But the similarity between the two of them ended there. Ligichev was a myopic, scholarly type. Ivanna had a confident carriage and the fiery eyes of a racehorse. The father was almost painfully thin. Youthful Ivanna had the figure of an athlete, with breasts that rose like arrows against her coveralls. Physical differences aside, however, word was that although she was barely into her twenties she was almost as brilliant as Ligichev, and he was rarely without her. Scoffing at ancient custom, he had chosen to take her with him on what was, in a fundamental way, Red Dawn’s maiden voyage.
Kalik left the control room and took a high-speed elevator down to sea level. He stepped out into a concrete arena bustling with pedestrian traffic passing through to office buildings, dormitories, factories, and docks. On the pier the smell of the sea mixed with gas and oil fumes and the sounds of men hard at work welding and hammering metal. Stepping over tangles of cables on the grimy floor Kalik flipped his I.D. at the guard, settled into an electric cart, and barked a quick “Akula” to the uniformed driver.
Kalik clenched his thick blue coat tighter around himself and held his cap down over his steel gray hair as they sped along the docks. He blew out a frosty breath. Goddamn January. Another new year he’d start out freezing. This far north the cold reached in and crept up your clothes. True, it was a damn sight colder where they were going, but having reached his fifties, Kalik was too much the fatalist to worry about the future. Now there was only the pleasure of Akula’s sleek black hull looming ahead and the fish-briney smell of the harbor water filling his nose, which, like his own petite madeleine, always prompted memories of the shores of his youth.
Ahead, the conference on Red Dawn’s deck broke up and the figures disappeared below. Good. Enough talk. Either it would work or it would not.
Kalik was pleased by the expectant air of preparedness about Akula as he dropped through the hatch and moved about. Sailors worked attentively at their stations under what had come to be known as Kalik’s Maxim: check it, recheck it, and then check the son of a bitch twice more. In the galley, cooks wrestled heavy milk tins into storage. In the weapons area, the torpedomen made sure their potentially violent charges were nestled in for the ride.
He stepped into the control room where his senior officer, Viktor Volkov, was hunched over the navigation officer’s console.
“Hello, Viktor. Things looks good.”
“Comrade Captain. Glad to have you on board,” the senior lieutenant said warmly. “We are almost ready to sail.”
“I got your message. Very good.” He was pleased to add, “As always.”
Volkov accepted the compliment with a quick nod of his head, but Kalik knew it was appreciated.
“By the way,” Volkov announced, “Cook promises to make blinis as soon as we’re under way.”
“Tell Cook for blinis I will promote him to admiral . . . or marry him, whichever he wishes.”
Volkov laughed. The hardest thing about being in command was leadership—and the hardest thing about leadership was learning it. He had learned a lot serving under Kalik for the past two years. The captain was a proud man, scrupulously fair, and his mind was as sharp as a blade on a cold morning when it came to battle tactics at sea, especially under the ice. Kalik took immense pride in Akula, the first Soviet submarine to reduce the long-standing noise vulnerability. More than once Volkov had watched Kalik spend hours cagily stalking an unsuspecting American sub, waiting for the perfect moment to attack. Then he would give them the peacetime equivalent of a torpedo launch—a nasty raking with active sonar pings at max power. For Kalik, Volkov knew, sneaking up on the Americans’ most advanced Los Angeles class subs was, basically, thumbing his nose at the competition.
For his part, Kalik watched Volkov with the crew and found his senior lieutenant’s calm professionalism a balm. Volkov was flexible in his management, a sensible way to deal with men working in cramped confines for months undersea, yet he had sufficient force of personality—a thing that could not be taught—to maintain order and discipline, especially among the junior officers. Someday he’d be a fine captain.
“Comrade Captain, it’s Red Dawn,” announced the radio officer. “Preparations are complete. She is ready to get under way on your signal.”
“Signal Red Dawn: Proceed as previously directed.”
“Maneuvering watch is stationed,” Volkov reported. “The ship is ready to get under way and prepared for dive except for the deck.”
“Very well.” Kalik hit the intercom. “Engine Room, this is the captain. Stand by to answer maneuvering orders.”
“We are ready to answer all bells, Comrade Captain.”
Kalik nodded. “Radio Officer. To Red Dawn: Proceed to Point Alpha. We’ll keep her forward of us all the way. To Base Command: Red Dawn and Akula under way as directed.” That completed, he ordered, “Take in all lines.”
The diving alarm sounded throughout the ship. The crew took their stations, and the mooring lines were coiled below decks.
“All lines on deck, Comrade Captain.”
“Very well. Engine Room, answer bells. All engines slow astern.”
Slowly Akula backed out of her slot. Deftly Kalik swung her about and headed into the channel.
“Red Dawn diving,” reported Sonar.
“Excellent.” Kalik was happy. He felt the power of the ship in his loins as if it were an extension of himself. No woman had ever made him feel so good. “Navigation, depth.”
“One hundred fifty meters and increasing, Comrade Captain. We’re out of the channel. Open water ahead. Depth two hundred meters.”
“Very well. Prepare to submerge.”
“Topside clear and rigged for dive,” Volkov reported.
“Submerge the ship,” Kalik ordered. The diving bell sounded throughout Akula. “Take her down to sixty meters and steer course zero zero zero due north.”
Akula slid beneath the cold waters of the Barents Sea.
“Engine Room, all ahead two-thirds. Viktor, take control. Stay close to Red Dawn. Remember, she doesn’t have our muscle.”
“We’ll keep as close as if she were our little sister out on a first date.” Volkov said reassuringly.
Kalik smiled. He said, “Notify me when we reach the ice pack,” and left for his cabin.
Chief Scientist Ligichev pushed his plate aside and peered at Red Dawn’s captain, who was glowering at him across the table in the officers’ mess. “Please, won’t you tell me what the problem is, Comrade Captain?”
Captain Igor Galinin did not answer, but his gaze took in Ligichev’s daughter, Ivanna, sitting calmly next to her father.
“Ah, I see,” Ligichev said softly.
“Perhaps you do,” said Galinin, stroking his black beard, “but then again, perhaps you do not.”
“Why don’t you enlighten us?” Ivanna suggested coldly.
“There, you see?” Galinin said. “Such attitude. Am I master of this ship or am I not?”
“Actually,” Ivanna said, meeting his gaze, “you aren’t. My father is. And if you doubt it, feel free to call Admiral Nicolai Korodin, deputy minister of defense and commander in chief of the navy, who authorized all of us to be here.”
“One moment, daughter,” Ligichev said, seeing Galinin’s color rising. They all had to work together, and squabbles would be unproductive. “Please, Comrade Captain, you were saying . . . ?”
“I was asking how I can govern my ship when my own engine room is off limits to me and my chief engineer!” Galinin exclaimed, exasperated. “I am not privy to our sailing orders, and worse, this . . . female seems intent on doing everything she can to rub me the wrong way.”
“Rubbing you any way is the furthest thing from my mind, Comrade. Believe me.”
“Again she taunts me!”
“Ivanna, you must stop,” said Ligichev softly.
“Then I demand he treat me as an equal. I will not be dismissed.”
“Listen to reason,” Galinin stormed, “The men are not used to having a woman on board. You must not continue to flaunt yourself.”
“For God’s sake, I was exercising.”
“Must you do so in such provocative garb? And when I order you to return to your cabin to change, what do you do? Such profanity!”
Ligichev sighed. “I should have seen this coming. A ship can have only one master—”
“My point exactly,” said Galinin.
“But that master must remember he is part of a team and that the team has a momentous responsibility to test equipment that has taken years and many millions of rubles to build. A team, I might add, to which my daughter has made invaluable contributions.”
“I accept that,” Galinin said, cooling. “But a crew must have discipline. I cannot have the men’s minds taken off their work.”
“Ivanna, you can see that, can’t you?” Ligichev’s tone was light, but there was no mistaking the steel underneath.
Ivanna bristled, but acquiesced. “All right, Father. I will try to be more respectful of the captain’s needs.”
Galinin had always thought a stiff breeze could knock Ligichev over, but he regarded him with new respect. If the man could control a daughter like this . . . He said, “I am sorry if I have not given Comrade Ligichova the respect due her position in the scientific community.” There, thought Galinin, make something out of that, bitch.
But Ivanna nodded peaceably enough.
“Good,” pronounced Ligichev. “Then if you will come with us, Captain, we’ll tend to matters that should have been taken care of at the outset.”
The engineering section took up almost half of the sub. Set into the steel wall by the bulkhead door was a newly installed electronic keypad.
“Captain, the combination is three, six, two, two. We three are now the only ones who know it.” Ligichev moved in front of Galinin and pressed it in.
“Of course, it will never pass my lips,” said Galinin, his tone indicating he was finally getting proper respect.
“Of course,” Ivanna repeated.
Electronic bolts slid back, and Ligichev spun the locking wheel. Bending low, they stepped across the bulkhead.
“Good day, Comrade Ligichev. Comrade Captain,” said Ligichev’s chief technician as they entered the compartment, which was bathed in a soft blue light. The other coveralled technicians looked up from their work.
“And to you, Comrade Chief Technician,” echoed Ligichev. “Perhaps you would permit us a brief inspection tour?”
“Naturally. Excuse me. Many things to tend to.”
“We will try not to get in your way.” Ligichev beckoned for Galinin to follow.
Galinin could find his way around a sub’s engine room blindfolded, but as his vision adjusted to the odd lighting he could see very little resembling anything he had seen before.
The common misconception about diesel subs was that diesel engines drove them. They didn’t. Diesel engines were used to generate electricity to charge the ship’s storage batteries. The batteries powered electric motors that spun the propellers. It was a simple system, extremely quiet and almost without flaw. A diesel sub could go for days without recharging if she stayed in one place and did little, as silent and undetectable as a hole in the ocean. But a diesel sub operating at the limit of her speed for defensive or offensive reasons would exhaust her batteries within hours. Running the engines to recharge was very noisy, which meant the sub could be easily detected and therefore destroyed. Worse, diesel engines used up oxygen. To replenish its air the sub had to surface or send up a snorkel. Either method made the ship an easy target.
“Please be careful, Captain. The equipment is very delicate,” said Ivanna. “I will be happy to explain it.”
Galinin stared. A hexagonal metal tube, roughly two feet in diameter and perhaps fifteen feet long, stretched in an arc from the deck under them to the rear bulkhead beside the main drive shaft. Enclosing the tube was a secondary metal housing and a series of gleaming, compact motors, all strangely surrounded by what looked like refrigeration coils.
“What is this?” Galinin asked, too curious to dissemble.
“A prototype of the first water jet drive capable of propelling a submarine,” Ligichev said proudly. “The result of years of intensive research and the reason we are all here.”
“That kind of a system isn’t new,” said Galinin, a little deflated. “We’ve experimented with spit-drives for years. They’re a conjurer’s trick, without real use. I’ve even seen experimental systems demonstrated. They were big and inefficient.”
“Not anymore,” countered Ivanna. “Father?”
“The systems you’ve seen, Captain, would take up every inch of space on this submarine,” Ligichev agreed, “but our unit is one-third the size of a standard nuclear reactor and twice as powerful.”
Galinin’s tone changed. “How is it possible?”
Ivanna pointed. “The motors and the superconductor are revolutionary in design. They are the reason for the refrigeration coils.”
“Wait a minute,” Galinin said. “No simple refrigerator can bring superconductors down to the temperatures you’d need. Even the newest materials won’t work above the temperature of liquid nitrogen.”
“You’re correct, of course,” said Ivanna. “But that was the previous barrier for superconductors. What makes our system feasible is a material my father invented. It’s called irinium after my mother, Irina, who died when I was a child.”
The look of genuine affection Ivanna gave her father made Ligichev’s stock with Galinin rise again. One of the prices he paid for his submarine service was divorce, and he rarely saw his children. A look like that would have meant a great deal to him.
Ligichev took up the explanation. “Up till now, to get superconductivity, which is the loss of all electrical resistance in a material, you needed temperatures close to absolute zero, minus 459.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Even high-temperature superconductors needed to be cooled to the temperature of liquid nitrogen.” Ligichev’s eyes were bright. “My irinium loses its resistance at a real temperature of thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit, or zero degrees Centigrade, the freezing point of water. That’s hundreds of degrees warmer than any other superconductor known to man. For practical purposes it’s almost room temperature! Irinium virtually eliminates heavy windings and steel magnets so our motors are one-quarter the size and weight but ten times the strength of conventional ones.”
Galinin looked over the coils, musing out loud. “Subs could be ultra-quiet, half their present size, and still be able to carry more weapons than even Akula does now. I am sorry, Comrades, I didn’t understand Red Dawn’s importance. I am proud to be part of this historic mission. You can count on my complete cooperation.”
“Thank you, Comrade Captain. Remember, your presence here shows the confidence Naval Command has in your abilities.”
Galinin swelled visibly. “May I ask one more question?”
“Why test under the ice cap? These waters are the most treacherous in the world.”
“Simple,” said Ivanna. “Heat.”
“Under certain conditions,” Ligichev explained, “the interaction of irinium and seawater produces intense heat. It’s possibly an electrical phenomenon. We aren’t certain. All things considered, cold waters were thought to be best suited.”
The intercom sounded overhead. “Comrade Captain?”
Galinin flicked the switch. “This is the captain.”
“We are at Point Alpha. Radio message from Akula. Captain Kalik asks confirmation of our readiness to go under the ice.”
“I’m coming up,” Galinin responded. “Comrades, we’ll be at the test site in less than six hours.”
“Very good, Comrade Captain. Ivanna and I will spend the time making final adjustments.”
As soon as Galinin left the engine room, Ivanna gave a snort of disgust. “I can’t say I agree with trusting that big ape. He’s the kind who either bites at your back or fawns at your feet.”
“I don’t want any more fights,” said Ligichev. “It’s easier to trust him.”
“But you didn’t trust him all the way,” Ivanna observed slyly.
“No, I didn’t, did I?” Ligichev smiled, “Well, prudence, daughter, in all things. Now let’s get to work. There is much to be done and six hours is not so long a time to do it in.”