Tuesday, February 8, 2022, 0700 hours
20 Nautical Miles North-West of Belle Île, France
Admiral Scott Grey of the United States Navy stood on the bridge of the USS Gerald R. Ford Supercarrier, surrounded by the most experienced crew in the navy and staring out at the surrounding escort vessels. Even though he was the youngest admiral in American history, at the spry age of forty, it was not shown by his appearance. Long, deep scars stretched across the left side of his face and down his neck, small speckles of white showed in what could be seen of his immaculate side burns, and he held the demeanor of a man who had been chewed up by the world and then spat back out. As he stared out, a small smile could not help but creep out across his lips. Before him spread the full might of the American Navy, cumulating in one new Zumwalt-Class destroyer leading the convoy, two Arleigh-Burke destroyers flanking the Gerald Ford, two Ticonderoga cruisers trailing the Arleigh-Burkes, and the Virginia-Class nuclear submarine Ambassador travelling silently below. This was also the first time that an American carrier had a fighter compliment consisting almost entirely of the new F-35C stealth fighter. In the middle of the fleet were the two Combat Support Ships for refueling the fleet, 2 America-Class Amphibious Assault Ships, and the USNS Bob Hope. If a passing fishing trawler saw the convoy, its crew would probably expect that World War III had broken out. However, no such action was scheduled for Admiral Grey; this convoy was heading to Belle Île, France, for an amphibious assault training exercise with the US Marines.
"50 minutes until deployment zone," the ship's navigator announced to the bridge staff.
"Acknowledged," said Admiral Grey as he turned to the captain of the Gerald Ford. "Captain Peterson, have communications signal Captains Grant, Martin, Pickney, and Wester to…"
"Admiral," interrupted a young petty officer who had just entered the bridge visibly out of breath. Petty Officer Pickney, the little brother of Captain Pickney, was a shy, unassuming fellow with pale skin that had yet to tan, and sandy hair. With encouragement from his brother, he had managed to recently secure a communications officer position aboard the Gerald Ford, and always tried to please his superiors. "Sir, there is…"
"Quiet!" shouted Captain Peterson, attempting, but failing to control his rage, with his veins visibly bulging from his skin. Captain Peterson was of Hawaiian descent and had an intimidating 6' 5" frame with copper skin. Unfortunately for the sailors under his command, he was also the embodiment of military discipline and regulation, with no patience or sympathy for those who were not. "Sailor, you may be new, but there are channels of communication. One cannot just stroll up to the Admiral and demand his attention!"
"Captain, I believe I can handle it from here," interrupted Grey, "Petty Officer Pickney, I will excuse this infraction once if what you have to say is important, if not, I'll let Captain Peterson personally handle disciplinary actions."
Pickney swallowed hard, his face turning a dark shade of crimson. He knew that he had crossed a line, but he had not raced up several flights of stairs from the communication deck for nothing.
"Sir, there is a call for you on secure line four. It's from the Pentagon."
A complete hush fell over the bridge as everyone present strained to hear any more information. Receiving a direct call from the Pentagon was second only to receiving one from the White House, and neither happened without an extreme change in the political minefield.
"Return to your station sailor, and next time, just use the communication channels that have been established. Captain, continue as planned, I'll be on the flag bridge."
As Grey left the bridge and made his way down the steely steps, he allowed a puzzled look to break through his cold demeanor. Why would the Pentagon be contacting him? There was no immediate threat from any country, and this exercise was to be as realistic as possible, with complete radio silence to and from the fleet. But as he approached the door to the flag bridge, Grey could not help but feel a knot forming in his stomach. Something was going to happen, and he knew that no one would like the impending change of their schedule.
The flag bridge was located directly below the carrier's main bridge, and from here, Grey could command the entire fleet. While he frequented the flag bridge, Grey preferred the main bridge, working alongside those that were responsible for the safekeeping of the ship and crew. He knew that this practice was frowned upon by senior admirals, but Grey felt that it helped both crew morale and his ability to command. At the front of the flag bridge were an array of instruments and displays showing statistics from across the fleet. The front and side walls were compiled almost entirely by bullet-proof glass, allowing for a 180-degree field of view from his command chair. In the center of the room was a meeting table; his command chair was at one head of the table, Captain Peterson's was at the other, and the rest of the captains had chairs at the sides of the table. As he entered, Grey could see the red light flashing on the secure phone line, indicating that he had a call.
"This is Admiral Scott Grey, to whom am I speaking?" asked Grey as he picked up the secured hotline phone.
"Good morning Admiral, this is Joint Chief of Staff Anthony Perez. I hope that the exercise is going well so far."
Grey stiffened slightly at this. The Joint Chief of Staff had subordinates that handled this type of communication, and he only personally called when something too classified for three-star generals was happening.
"Yes sir, however, I believe that this call is not to talk about the exercise."
"That is correct. A Russian research vessel recently contacted the Russian Navy Main Staff about an anomalous object they had detected on radar. Soon after that, all contact was lost with the research vessel. Since the Russian Navy has no ships in the area, they have asked us to investigate."
How desperate must the Russians be to have us search for a missing vessel?
"I will dispatch a destroyer immediately; what are the last known coordinates?"
"Admiral, we are rerouting your entire fleet."
There was a long pause as Admiral Grey contemplated what he was hearing. He was to reroute his entire fleet of 12 state-of-the-art vessels to search for a single Russian research vessel lost somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, instead of conducting a critical joint-branch training exercise.
"Very well, sir." He finally said.
"Excellent, the last known coordinates are latitude 47, longitude -10, and admiral," said Perez, the warning in his tone as audible as the words themselves, "as far as anyone else is concerned, this conversation never occurred, and you simply are being rerouted as a last minute change in the exercise."
With that, the phone clicked as Perez ended the connection, and Grey breathed out a massive sigh. He knew that the call from D.C. would not result in anything preferable, but he did not expect to have his entire day's plan thrown out. Reaching over to the intercom, Grey pressed the button for communications, a small buzz indicating that the system was active.
"This is Admiral Grey, please send for Captains Peterson, Grant from the Zumwalt, Martin from DDG-138, Pickney from CG-74, and Wester from AAS-14 to come to the flag bridge immediately."
"Of course, sir!" answered a rather energetic communications officer. Grey realized, with a smile, that it was Petty Officer Pickney who was on the other end. Poor kid, Peterson can make most grown men cower in fear, thought Grey as he reached over to cue an intercom connection to navigation. A buzz sounded again as a new voice came through the speaker.
"This is navigation, what can I do for you admiral?"
"Have all ships make for LAT 47, LONG -10, formation Sierra-Romeo One Four."
Grey could hear the keyboard keys being pressed as the information was entered into the computer, and then they abruptly stopped as the navigation officer realized where those coordinates were.
"Sir, that is…"
"I am aware of where that is, sailor, now do your job and get us there."
Grey continued to contact the various departments under his command to make the changes necessary for the redirection, with the final order being given to Primary Flight Control to have two E-2C Hawkeye Early Warning Aircraft sent out as a scouting party. He removed his finger from the intercom activation key, and then assumed his position in his chair, watching as the fleet began to turn starboard and assume the designated formation positions. Waiting for the others to make their way to the meeting, Grey began to ponder what could possibly be in store for his men; nevertheless, his train of thought was scattered as the captains began to file in. Speculation could wait, at this moment, he had to prepare his captains for the new mission, despite what Perez had told him.
"They can't do that! We have been preparing this for weeks because some lousy generals with nothing else better to do decided that we should have a joint-branch exercise. Most people think that the assault ships are a waste of money!" shouted Captain Peterson from across the table.
The rest of the captains nodded their heads in agreeance, except for one.
"I'm afraid that there is nothing we can do, Captain, this order has come down directly from the JCS. We are heading towards the last known coordinates of the vessel, and aircraft have already been dispatched. I understand your frustrations, but we must set that aside and prepare for every scenario." Lamented Captain Grant. As the senior-most captain, he was granted the command of the new Zumwalt stealth destroyer which was to lead the training exercise. With the first signs of a receding hairline beginning to show, and a gravel undertone presenting itself in his voice, it was apparent that Grant had just a year or two more before retirement.
The discussion continued throughout the day as everyone began to go through search and rescue formations, contact protocols, and possible responses to anomalous objects. With continual negative reports from the E-2C Hawkeyes, it was almost as if the research vessel had dropped off the face of the Earth. Finally, at 2000 hours, the captains were dismissed, and Grey returned to his quarters for the night, still going over maps, protocols, and fleet movements in his head as the ocean of sleep washed over him.
Wednesday, February 9, 2022, 0132 hours
Somewhere in the West Atlantic
"Sir, Sir!" a panicked voice called through the cabin door, the relentless pounding on the door waking Admiral Grey. "Sir!" The voice called once more as Grey made is way to the door and wrenched it open.
"What is it?" he demanded to the wide-eyed sailor, who was clearly alarmed by something incredulous.
"Admiral, we've lost contact with CG-75 and one Seahawk that was refueling on it. We cannot even pinpoint them on radar, and no aircraft have reported spotting the vessel. Last response was five minutes ago two nautical miles East from our position."
This completely snapped Grey out of his post-sleep stupor. First a research vessel, and now a warship; what could possibly be happening. Even with modern systems, some interference could always be expected with communications, but to have something simply disappear warranted enough concern to reform the fleet.
"Have all remaining vessels converge on our position. If they haven't already been sent out, I want every available helicopter dispatched ahead of the fleet to search for CG-75."
"Right away sir!" answered the young officer as he dashed back up towards the bridge to relay the instructions. Grey quickly put on his crisp white uniform and made his way through the cramped steel corridors to coordinate the search from the flag bridge. He needed to know what was happening, and he needed to know before another vessel was lost to the ocean.
"Officer on deck!" a member of the support staff shouted as Grey entered the flag bridge. All work simultaneously ceased as sailors turned to salute the admiral.
"As you were," responded Grey, as he then stopped an assistant to ask for a cup of coffee. Instead of the overall peace of yesterday, the entire flag bridge had become a hub of activity. Members of his support staff frantically rushed around, monitoring radar screens, communicating with the ship's combat information center and communications deck, and coordinating the search patterns of the newly launched Seahawk and Nighthawk helicopters. Several spotters wearing the navy's blue-grey camouflage, brown combat helmets, and carrying binoculars rushed past the support staff. They quickly joined the other spotters on the lookout stations flanking the flag bridge, attempting to find any sign of the missing Ticonderoga cruiser. Similar actions were being taken across the fleet as every vessel attempted to locate it.
"Captain Peterson, what is the status of the search?" questioned Grey.
"Sir, just as you requested, all available helicopters have been dispatched to the last know location of CG-75, but there has been no sign of the vessel." A hint of worry beginning to crack through Peterson's stone-cold demeanor.
"How far away is the fleet?"
"Approximately 2 nautical miles away. Captain Grant is about to break off the Zumwalt from the fleet for increased coverage, and the Ambassador is conducting a deep-sea sonar sweep to see if there are any ship wreckages."
As Peterson finished providing his report to Grey, a lieutenant that was communicating with the combat information center grabbed the attention of Grey.
"Admiral, CIC has reported an electromagnetic anomaly 10 nautical miles west of our current location!" the lieutenant exclaimed.
"Captain, inform Grant that he is to remain with the fleet, and have all vessels head for that anomaly." Grey said as he moved over to the intercom.
After ordering Primary Flight Control to recall all helicopters, he moved out onto the lookout station with his own pair of binoculars in an attempt to find the source of the electromagnetic anomaly. What everyone on the bridge saw as the fleet approached the source left them speechless.
A gargantuan fogbank spread out ahead of them in all directions, fluorescent purple and green lightning shooting throughout its entirety, and in the middle of it all stood what could only be described as a rift in the air. This rift stretched two miles into the atmosphere, and even from the fleet's distance, the turbulent turquoise water could be seen churning and crashing around this rift, almost as if the ocean itself was being pulled into it. Just as everyone managed to escape the paralysis of shock, the wind began to thrash against the lookout station, causing several sailors to curse as their hats were wretched off of their heads. The speed of the wind continued to grow exponentially as the ship drew closer, and soon it was nigh impossible to stand without being pushed or thrown down by the wind. Torrents of rain poured down on the crew, almost as if they had entered the most powerful hurricane to ever exist. Through the confusion of it all, Grey and Peterson were shouting at the crew to secure the aircraft and then have all crew members head below decks. The piercing scream of the ship's rough sea alarm tore through the torrent of sound caused by the rain and wind, but it too was soon drowned out. It was all Grey and the rest of the lookouts could do to get back inside the flag bridge without flying off the ship. As soon as Grey knew that the crew could hear him, he shouted at the crew, "Full reverse, all ships!" But this order was given in vain; the entire fleet was already moving at speeds that far surpassed the maximum speed of 30 knots. There was a mighty crash as the Gerald Ford finally entered the rift, throwing anyone that was standing to the floor. When the fleet finally returned to calmer waters, not a single crewmember among the eleven remaining vessels was conscious to witness the disaster before them.
Grey was among the first of the crew to awaken, and it was to a smell he hoped he would never experience again; burning flesh and oil. For all the crew members that knew what the smell was, they regained complete consciousness from fear-based adrenaline; those that did not know what the smell was were awakened from the sheer putridness of it. Grey frantically scrambled to his feet and peered out of the observation windows, along with most of the support staff, and what laid before them left some speechless; others gagged and retched at both the sight and smell. A forty ship convoy of unknown nationality was travelling approximately seven nautical miles ahead of the carrier battlegroup. Seeing a massive convoy in what was supposed to be empty ocean was shocking enough, but witnessing emergency flares in the air above thirty sinking vessels told a much more disastrous story. The stench of burning petroleum and diesel burned the lungs and eyes of the crewmembers on the flag bridge, with many covering their mouth and nose with a piece of cloth. Some even considered retrieving a gasmask to prevent breathing in the fumes. Later reports would indicate that the only places which escaped the fumes were the lowest levels of the carrier.
As Grey stared at the apocalyptic scene before him, he was transported back to his first patrol as a captain twelve years ago. He was tasked with escorting American oil tankers in the Persian Gulf after increased tensions between the United States, Russia, and Iran. That day had been completely uneventful, with only a passing cargo vessel straying slightly too close to the convoy. The five vessels he was tasked with protecting were filled to the brim with raw, unrefined oil, and there were only two escort ships: his and another Arleigh-Burke. Half-way through the gulf, his ship's radar had detected two dozen incoming missiles. With no time to ponder who had sent them, Grey gave the command to have all personnel man their battle stations. With the Phalanx anti-missile defense system already calculating the missiles' trajectories, and the other escort destroyer doing the same, Grey was certain the tankers would survive. Within the next few seconds, the four Phalanx units on the destroyers began to tear through the incoming missiles, with several being destroyed dangerously close to the tankers. The shockwaves rocked every ship in the convoy, but those missiles had only been a distraction. Twenty more missiles were incoming; however, they were targeting the other side of the tankers. Panic began to set in as only his Phalanx units would be able to target the missiles because of the other destroyer's location in the formation. Grey knew that some missiles would be targeted at his vessel, but if the tankers were saved, then they could successfully reach friendly waters. He quickly ordered the Phalanx system protocols to be overridden and have them specifically target the missiles that were approaching the tankers. As the Phalanxes whirred to life, there was an explosion of fire at the front of the destroyer as the missiles hit their target.
Grey quickly ushered his men out of the bridge, and just as they were about to deploy the life rafts, the bow ammunition storage exploded. He was thrown off the vessel and into the burning sea as diesel gushed from the sinking destroyer. Luckily, Grey missed the ever-increasing patch of diesel, and while he desperately clung to a piece of twisted metal, he was forced to watch as every tanker was plunged into flames as the missiles found their marks. The nearest tanker then exploded, and a flaming piece of debris caught him on the left side of his face. Fighting to stay awake, Grey clung to that twisted piece of metal for ten minutes, witnessing the death and destruction around him as sailors burned alive and drowned in the diesel and crude oil. He was rescued by a passing RHIB from the second escort destroyer, half dead, and half blind.
Snapping out of the trance, Grey was determined to prevent the men and women in that convoy from suffering the fate as he did. If anyone could pry their eyes off of the scene before them, they would have seen that a long-extinguished fire had appeared behind his eyes, and this time, the fire was burning brighter than ever before.
"All hands, action stations!" shouted Grey, his authoritative voice and the sailors' training overrode their shock as the flag bridge once again came to life, "And I wanted damage reports in my hand two minutes ago!"
Support staff members quickly returned to their stations as the action station alarm began to blare throughout the vessel. The stomping of boots could be heard just outside of the flag bridge as soldiers ran to their posts.
"Have communications attempt to contact that convoy, we need to know what's happening." Grey added as he rushed over to the direct satellite connection to The Pentagon, but when he picked it up, all he got was silence. This deeply alarmed the already concerned Grey as the connection utilized classified government communication satellites. Even if there was some interference, he should have heard something as there were several satellite communication antennas on the carrier that were connected to this line. As Grey attempted to reconnect to the system, a support staff member approached him.
"Sir, communications has informed us that all satellite communication is currently offline. In fact, they can't even utilize the secured lines. We have switched to ship-to-ship communication in the meantime, and the damage reports should be available momentarily. The fleet is already on an intercept course, and it won't be long until we reach them as the convoy is only moving at ten knots."
"Very good, is there any sign of the missing cruiser?"
"No sir, but we do have lookouts searching for it."
Despite the intensity of the moment, the one question at the forefront of everyone's mind was: where are we? Unfortunately for them, that question would be answered very soon.
Grey knew that if all satellite communications were offline, then GPS would not be functioning either. Just as Grey finished the thought, another officer approached him with a stack of papers in his hand.
"Sir, we have the damage reports from the fleet. There appears to be no severe damage to any vessel or aircraft, and all vessels are operating at peak efficiency."
"Thank you." Responded Grey as he took the report. The officer was right, no ships were reporting damage to any system, including the communication arrays. This mystery just kept getting deeper and deeper.
"We have sonar contact!" shouted yet another member of the support staff. "Zumwalt and Ambassador are reporting twenty submarine contacts among the convoy."
"Have we spotted any escort ships?"
"Negative sir, but one may be on the far side of the convoy."
"Inform the other captains of this development, and I want seven MH-60Rs outfitted for anti-submarine warfare and launched. Send five to support that convoy and keep two to patrol around the carrier."
"Yes sir!" responded a deck communications officer.
"We have contact with the convoy." Announced a second deck communications officer.
"Patch me through!" ordered Grey as he moved to the ship-to-ship communication system.
"Hello, hello? This is Captain Anderson of the merchant vessel Boulston. We are under attack by the Wolfpack, thirty ships have been lost, including all our escort vessels. The only defense we have left is this one massive cruiser that appeared out of nowhere a few minutes ago." Came a panicked voice over the speaker.
"Captain, this is Admiral Scott Grey of the United States Navy. We are about 2 minutes from your convoy, but we have already sent helicopters to assist. Can you give us the information to contact that mysterious cruiser?"
"Of course, and please hurry, we can't hold on forever."
"Remain calm, Captain, we are almost there."