CH 1 - CONTACTS

Baltic Sea, April 13th, 1982, 0745hrs

It could be nothing. Carl Lindberg reached forward and polished the screen with a small piece of cloth. At the same time, he wiped the sweat from his other hand on his pants before rolling a finger across the tracker ball next to his keyboard. Referred to as an “ape skull” in Swedish Navy slang, the tracker ball allowed him to move the sonar‘s directional microphone.

            The sonar would cover most of the 360 degrees around them. Still, this microphone would provide additional sound quality and relay it directly to his headphones and help him evaluate the contact. If he could find it again. Slowly, he moved the ape skull, sweeping the microphone back and forth across the bearing where he thought he had heard something. Blank. Nothing at all.

            He cleaned his screen again and blinked his eyes a few times before looking back at it. Still nothing. The yellow line, which would indicate a contact, moved slightly with the ocean‘s background noise but with no indication of a contact. He looked up at the BTR, the printer that would continuously print the contact bearings on a paper roll as the minutes passed. The screen in front of him would tell him the bearing to the contact just now. The printer would tell him where it had been and how it was moving.

            Squinting and running his index finger across it, he was looking for anything that would mark the sound he thought he had heard. Not a thing. He reached for a pen to make a note of the time. That would help him rewind the tape later to see if he could find anything of interest.

            Before he got his pen, another bulge appeared on the round sonar screen in front of him and he quickly ran the microphone toward it. The contact was weak but had appeared very suddenly. Lindberg looked at the time. That makes sense, he thought. He was confident that it must be the ferry from Visby.

            “Con, Sonar. New contact bearing 175, weak. The bearing isn’t moving.”

            “Understood,” the torpedo officer answered. “Is it the ferry?”

            “Very likely, sir,” Lindberg replied. “Give me a minute to confirm.”

            Lindberg briefly closed his eyes and listened to the contact. It was an easy job when you knew what to listen for. M/S Visby would depart Visby Harbor at 0730, pass the outer rim of the pier about 10–15 minutes later, which would remove all barriers for the sound of her engines and propellers to travel far out into the Baltic Sea. Twin screws, currently making only ninety revolutions per minute, would give her an approximate speed of 8–10 knots. Cavitation was less than many ships her size but still considerable. It would increase as she accelerated to full cruising speed toward her destination, the Port of Nynäshamn south of Stockholm.

            Cavitation was the lifeline of a Navy sonar operator. Often referred to as “cold-boiling” of the water, the change in pressure from the front and the back of a turning propeller blade generated millions of bubbles, like opening a bottle of champagne. As the bubbles collapsed, they made a noise that sonar would recognize as a moving propeller.  

            Lindberg pulled out a binder and double-checked the ferry timetable before listening for another thirty seconds. Then, he had a look in the Navy ship library, which hosted recordings and characteristics of thousands of ships. M/S Visby had a bent propeller axle, which meant it would give off a squeak with every turn.

            It was easy to find. Lindberg smiled to himself. Someone was stepping on a squeaky toy ninety times per minute.

            “Con, Sonar. Contact bearing 175, now bearing 176. 90 revolutions, twin screws, heavy cavitation, axle noise, on time according to the ferry schedule. Contact identified as Gotland Ferry M/S Visby.”

            That was the end of his official report, but given the ferry and its destination, he added, “Contact likely to turn north shortly and increase speed to eighteen knots. She’s coming right at us. The bearing will be stable and increase in strength over the next few hours.”

            “Very well, young man,” the torpedo officer said, obviously aware of everything he had just heard.

            Lindberg‘s mind had been distracted by the ferry, but his body hadn’t relaxed. He had to wipe his hands again before moving the microphone slowly across the bearing of his phantom contact. The lack of sound was worse than anything he had ever heard.


* * *


Military headquarters, April 13th, 1982, 0800hrs

How can you get to the position of the highest-ranking officer in the Swedish Navy and still be subjected to shit coffee? Klas Nylund, vice admiral and head of the Swedish Navy, wasn’t impressed with his reception. He hadn’t been to this part of the military headquarter facilities before and was unsure of the reason for having a briefing here. Undoubtedly the work of the self-proclaimed know-it-alls in intelligence who had set it up. He then took a second to grin at his own thoughts. Judgment about coffee took priority over thinking about why he was here in the first place, in the early morning hours, along with a handful of senior commanders.

            He was interrupted by the Military intelligence commander who walked up to him. He didn’t salute the man, as they were indoors, but did stand ramrod straight in front of him. Commander Ola Löfgren had started in the Navy but spent most of his career in military intelligence. He didn’t think much of Nylund, but it came with the job to act in an old-fashioned military manner to please this relic. Nylund was older than his Army and Airforce counterparts, but all three possessed the same high-flying view of themselves.

            Without further ado, Ola Löfgren turned on his heels, walked a few steps to the large oak table, and threw down a folder, which landed with a thud. That got their attention all right, he thought as he sat down.

            “Gentlemen, I know you’re wondering why I’ve asked you here this morning.” There was a grunt of agreement among the officers, now all sitting around the oak table. It looked to weigh as much as a small car. Löfgren was happy he hadn’t been the one to move it into place for the briefing. His herniated disc wouldn’t have done well with that.

            “There’s something we need to talk about.”

            Nylund was now sitting at the end of the table, looking at the intelligence officer with ill-concealed disdain. He had an impulse to reproach Löfgren to show who was boss in this room, but he was also keen to get to the content of this session. He had lived through the shit coffee, and hopefully, that wouldn’t have been in vain. Nylund couldn’t help himself from letting out a sigh and, under his breath, whisper, “Well, let‘s get on with it then, Commander.”

            In response, Löfgren looked at Nylund for a fraction of a second too long before he started. He wanted to make sure that everyone in the room noticed some level of defiance.

            “Well, then,” he said as he stood up, walked a lap around his chair for effect, and then looked at his audience. “On April 11th, 0945 to 0953, a submarine was sighted in Danziger Gatt.”

            Löfgren took a breath to continue, but Nylund, already underwhelmed, interjected, “Why are you trying to brief the Navy on a sighting? That runs through our operational office. I haven‘t seen anything about Danziger Gatt.”

            He was pleased when he got a clear nod from the commander of the fourth surface fleet and what he felt was silent agreement from the rest. It wasn’t the place of intelligence to tell the Navy what happened in their waters. Fueled by the audience‘s response, he continued, “You haven‘t been speaking to the lady that saw the last three periscopes from her kitchen window, have you? She’s so lonely out there in her cabin, she looks for company wherever she can find it.”

            The crowd was warming up, and Nylund was contemplating continuing his rant. Löfgren was looking at the group without a hint of a smile and continued with a stern voice. “It did run through your operational office, and you ignored it.”

            The crowd turned silent, waiting for the response of the Navy chief before daring to commit to a reaction. Nylund shot Löfgren an angry look but didn’t find any suitable words to go along with it.

            “It was on the surface, and it is not, I repeat, it is not one of ours,” Löfgren continued.

            “How can you be so sure?” asked Nylund, whose brain just had caught up with the news, only realizing after the fact that this was the wrong question to ask. What did Löfgren mean the Navy had ignored it? Before he got his thoughts straight, Löfgren was well into his explanation.

            “One, our submarines are accounted for, and none of them were in Danziger Gatt at this time. Two, one of the witnesses sketched it and sent the picture to us.”

            Löfgren pulled a few pieces of paper from his binder and handed them out. “As you can tell, the shape of the conning tower is completely at odds with a Swedish submarine. I trust this doesn’t look anything like Sjöormen or Näcken to you, gentlemen?”

            Nylund said nothing for a few seconds, as his mind was still working out what to do next. He decided to interrupt Löfgren and get some clarity on this. “When was this sighting reported, and why have I not been made aware of this?”

            Löfgren flicked through some notes on the table.

            “First report was called in on the 11th at 1010. Naval operations reported, requesting a visual scan from the crew at Mällsten. There was also a flyover by a Coast Guard airplane that happened to be in the area. Both searches came back blank, and no further actions were taken, it seems.”

            That was terrible news. Nylund would have to get to the bottom of it. He could sense the uneasiness among his commanders in the room on being called out like this. Technically, it wasn’t their job to report a sighting, but somewhere along the way, naval routine had broken down. The sheer number of sightings they got since last year did make it difficult to cope, but if this got out, it would be a significant embarrassment for the Navy. Another one to add to the pile since last year. Nylund decided to change tactics and go on the offensive.

            Turning, he spoke to Löfgren harshly. “So, you’ve had information on this for two days, and this is the first we hear of it? What the hell have you people been doing? Why were we not informed immediately?”

            Löfgren was now sure he had the upper hand as well as their attention.       “Gentlemen,” he said with a softer tone than necessary, acting like the adult in the room. “As you know, there are a lot of these sightings passing through the Navy, and before the sketch landed on my desk later in the day, we didn‘t know more than you did. Once we saw the sketch and questioned the witnesses, it has taken us a fair bit of time to confirm with first and second submarine division that this couldn’t have been one of our own.” Löfgren paused. “It‘s not.”

            Nylund now struggled to keep himself entirely under control. “Why would a sketch like this end up on your desk and not with Navy operations?” he asked acidly.

            “I don‘t know, Admiral. Somehow it seems it was handed to the Navy personnel in the guard booth, and that is where it stayed for hours until someone finally brought it upon themselves to walk it up to the main building. Major confusion if you ask me.”

            An intense discussion broke out among the commanders in the room, as it was clear that more than one thing had gone wrong in the Navy that day. The lack of resources was mentioned. So were the many budget cuts that the socialists had carried out through the past decade.

            “The nationality of the boat?” Löfgren interrupted, bringing them back to the matter at hand.

            Before he could answer his own rhetorical question, Commander Melker Nilsson from the first submarine division at Berga interrupted him.

            “There’s no way we can be certain based on this sketch. It could be anything. If the sketch is correct, however, it can’t be a Swedish submarine.” He continued, “We can speculate as to why it’s here and who it is. Whoever it is, though, the main question to me is, why the hell is it running on the surface? Except for a catastrophic mechanical failure of some sort, nobody in their right mind would run on the surface in foreign waters.” Commander Nilsson leaned back in his chair as if to signal the end of his contribution, leaving a gaping hole in the conversation.


* * *


Baltic Sea, April 13th, 1982, 1130hrs

What the hell is going on here? Lindberg unintentionally frowned as he heard it again. What is that? Most contacts would have some rhythm to them. That was the effect of being propelled by machinery. A diesel engine turning over, a propeller churning through the water. It would all produce a rhythm you could dance to. Fishing vessels with their smaller, usually three-bladed propellers would give out the standard Walz-like one-two-three, one-two-three, but at an RPM that was fast enough to make it hard to count, let alone dance to. 130–150 maybe, more than two revolutions per second. The larger tankers and cargo vessels would typically be looking at four-bladed propellers, larger with a lower RPM, 70–80—easy to count. One-two-three-four, one-two-three-four. Slow foxtrot.

            There was something there, wasn‘t there? Diffuse and with no hint of a rhythm. Like someone taking a piss on the stone floor of a cathedral. The Swedish submarine made forty revolutions per minute, giving it a speed of about four knots. This meant they were nothing but a hole in the water, almost impossible to detect. The bearing to the contact wasn’t moving much, so whatever it was, it wasn’t moving very fast either. He had heard it at bearing 301 a few hours ago and now would estimate it to be at its strongest, if you could call it that, at about 290. Whoever was relieving himself in the cathedral was almost standing still. Trying not to piss on his shoes probably.

            Lindberg snapped out of his thoughts. “What is that?” The torpedo officer had the con and was moving around the command center. Now he was leaning over Lindberg‘s shoulder, looking at the screen.

            “What?” was all that Lindberg managed to get out.

            “That,” said the torpedo officer with a stern voice, pointing to a slight bulge in the yellow line on the screen.

            “Damn, Lindberg, stop daydreaming and focus on your fucking job, or I‘ll personally rip your head off. You know the first paragraph of the submarine rulebook, right? So follow it.”

            The torpedo officer took a few steps back toward where he’d been standing a moment earlier. Then, he turned around and gestured angrily at Lindberg to get on with his job.

            The first paragraph of the Swedish Navy submarine regulation stated that one man‘s failure to perform his duty might endanger the ship and all of its crew. It was a call to teamwork seldom seen in civilian life, where failed collaboration rarely had fatal consequences.

Lindberg looked at his screen. “Con, Sonar. New contact bearing 126, weak.” He looked at the BTR waterfall. “Bearing moving right, slowly.”

            “Yes, I already know that,” answered the torpedo officer, aggression lingering in his voice. “So, what is it?”

            Lindberg listened to the contact for thirty seconds and then moved on to his second report. “Con, Sonar. Contact bearing 126, now bearing 127, 85 revolutions. Single screw. Heavy cavitation. Turbodiesel. Contact classified as a large merchant, moving toward us.”

            Need to sort my shit out, Lindberg thought.

            As the contact bearing 127 continued to move right and the BTR plotted its movements, he picked up the sliding ruler and estimated the plot‘s angles. Then, he spent thirty seconds calculating the movements of the contact.

            “Con, Sonar. Contact reported 126, now bearing 136, estimated course 220, estimated speed, 12 knots, Calculated distance 111 hectometers.”

            “Very well,” the torpedo officer responded, still pissed off.

            The captain came into the command center, casually walking around checking what was going on with the crew on duty. He walked past the radio room and glanced over Lindberg‘s shoulder at the sonar screen and BTR. “Clean plot,” he stated but kept moving without waiting for a response. He disappeared, moving toward the galley, and came back a minute later with a cup of coffee in his hand. The smell quickly filled the small compartment giving everyone a feeling of home.

            As Lindberg was drawing in a full breath of the aroma, he suddenly froze in his chair. There it was again. Bearing 285. Barely distinguishable from regular background noise. I’m probably just hearing ghosts here, he thought while moving the ape skull back and forth to see what gave him the best signal. Highly questionable whether that’s anything, he thought, but he couldn’t quite convince himself. He looked at his watch, which read 1143. He was due to hand over his shift in seventeen minutes. To hell with it, he thought. Corporal Wikingsson from the port watch, who would likely replace him, was useless anyway. He wouldn’t pick it up if it ran him over. Looking at the screen and not letting himself drift into thoughts again reminded him of the torpedo officer scolding him just a few minutes earlier.

            The submarine rulebook also stated that every possible contact must be reported. Possible is a relative term, Lindberg thought, knowing that if he reported it, the sonar chief would come rushing, and he was on the port watch and would be having lunch now.

            The captain‘s voice came through the room. “Coming up on 1200hrs. We need to report our position.”

            He turned to the helmsman. “Forward sixty revolutions; make your depth two-five meters.”

            “Forward sixty revolutions. Make my depth two-five meters. Aye, sir,” the helmsman answered, punching the new orders into the steering console.

            Lindberg‘s mind started racing, and he could feel his heart rate starting to pick up. Twenty-five meters meant they would pass through the temperature layer and get closer to the background noise on the surface. If he was to report anything, it would have to happen this second—this very second. As he could start to feel his heart rate throbbing in his temples, he took a deep breath.

            “Con, Sonar. New contact bearing 285, weak, bearing stable.”