I was at my post in the lobby, playing solitaire on my phone. When I looked up, they were standing at the Deep Bleu See check-in desk. Instead of colorful Hawaiian shirts, they wore black sleeveless T-shirts, the kind some people call “wife beaters,” although maybe not in the Middle East. Their leader checked them in while I circled the lobby and sent Abby a quick text message. I checked in as they were walking away, carrying their wrist bracelets. Maybe the yellow plastic loops were too small.
“Can I sit up front?” I asked.
“There is no assigned seating, sir. If you wait to be last on board the shuttle boat, you’ll be first during the transfer to the submarine.”
I thanked the girl and tried to follow her advice, but the eight men were waiting on the dock as other passengers boarded the boat. When I tried to stand behind them, they stepped back, moving in unison. The leader said, “You can board now” in a tone that did not invite discussion. I smiled and nodded. They followed me on board the shuttle.
I stood close to a family of four, hoping I looked like Uncle Matt, catching up with the family. If the bad guys had spent time watching passenger groups, as we had, I would stand out if I looked like a single male.
“Well, we’re finally here.”
I smiled and tried to make it look like a casual comment—to the family—and a more familiar one to the man with the black eyes watching my every move. The dad smiled back but said nothing. I directed my next comment to the boy, who was maybe ten.
“Are you ready for a real submarine ride?”
“I’m ready,” he said. Being a modern suburban kid, he remembered not to make eye contact with the strange man. The dad was taking bad video, waving the camera around, so I turned to mom.
“Grandpa would have loved this. He spent three years in submarines, in the Navy.”
I was careful to phrase the comment so it sounded like I was talking about our common grandfather—to the watcher—and my own grandfather, to the woman. She smiled but didn’t respond. I was one friendly comment away from dad saying something or mom turning her back, so I got busy taking tourist pictures. With any luck, I had fooled the watchers, at least temporarily.
The trip to the operating area was uneventful, if you don’t count changing course to avoid a cruise ship. It was one of the money boats, and its captain expected us to give way.
Most of the passengers were enjoying the ride, taking pictures and imagining they were seeing famous movie stars lounging on the decks of their fabulous vacation homes. The eight big men stood in silence, ignoring the hand holds, adjusting their bodies to the motion of the boat. One of the men was shooting video of passengers and procedures.
Even the bad guys have techs.
I kept my smile going and made sure I didn’t point my camera at the group. It was easy to enjoy the amazing view—some of the smile was genuine—but I was trying to think like someone who might want to hijack a sub. For them, stern faces and black shirts, this was a rehearsal—but for what?
The sub surfaced as we approached, maintaing an even keel and blowing the last of the water out of the main ballast tanks, so the sub rode high and the light swell didn’t wash over the deck. When the hatch was open and secured, passengers—now certified submariners—began climbing the steps and walking out onto the still-wet deck. Everyone was smiling as they trooped onto the shuttle boat. Then it was our turn.
“OK folks, it’s time to board the sub. Watch your step on the stairs, and please use the hand rails.”
The leader said something that sounded like an order and the men began climbing down the steps toward the sub. Then the last man in the group blocked everyone’s progress while he pretended to tie his shoe. I had the little camera shooting covert video, but concentrating on the job didn’t keep my heart rate from climbing.
Maybe this isn’t a rehearsal, after all.
The eight men spaced themselves down the ladder and onto the sub deck in a formation I recognized from the Navy. On a ship, a line of sailors will transfer supplies, hand to hand, along a passageway and into a storage compartment. These guys weren’t passing boxes of canned peaches and green beans. They were checking the distance from the boat to the sub hatch, to see how quickly eight men could transfer weapons and other equipment.
Scuba gear, maybe suicide vests.
I risked a quick picture of the formation, in case someone at Langley was as skeptical as Jack. Hell, maybe it was my imagination, but I didn’t think so.
The eager, but polite, passengers waited until the shoe was tied and the man climbed down to fall in with the rest of his team. The men stood quietly, one behind another, waiting to enter the sub. None of them smiled or pretended to be anticipating a fun time.
I played Uncle Matt again, standing next to the kid, pointing to the sub, and spouting facts. A female tour guide welcomed us and invited us to follow her down the steps into the sub. I was nervous, so the expression, “down the hatch” came to mind. If this went well, I would be able to come back up the hatch again.
Easy, Matt. They’re just a bunch of fun-loving guys on vacation.
It looked like the seating had been planned in advance. The leader and the video guy sat up front, just behind the pilot’s compartment. The rest took seats at strategic locations around the compartment.
Just like they do on airplanes.
The parents put the kids in between them, so I couldn’t speak to the boy. I needed to say something to the dad, to maintain Uncle Matt, but I needed to keep the conversation short, so dad wouldn’t say something like, “Where are you from?” and spoil the illusion.
“This is quite some boat, huh? I didn’t think the windows would be so large.”
I was trying to sound like someone who didn’t know anything about ships or submarines, in case the black shirt sitting next to me had orders to report my conversation to his leader.
Dad nodded and smiled, and turned to talk to his kids. I got busy taking pictures of fish, attracted by a fish feeder on the sub. I decided against trying a casual conversation with the black shirt.
Maybe he’s estimating how much Semtex it will take to blow one of these windows.
The tour guide welcomed everyone on board and began a reassuring safety message—plenty of oxygen during the trip, no seat belts required—that ended with a reminder that smoking was prohibited. When you deal with the public, nothing is too obvious.
A black shirt was shooting video of the guide, recording everything she said.
They might find a female to impersonate the tour guide.
The passengers sat back-to-back, in molded fiberglass seats that were actually part of the battery compartment cover. Everyone was looking out the large viewports, except for the leader and the video guy, who had turned in their seats to study the control setup.
When he was finished mapping the controls, the video guy did a move I recognized, having done it myself. He placed the camera strap over his shoulder, diagonally across his body, so the camera was pointing backwards, toward the pilot compartment. During the trip, he would sit still, watching fish, while the camera recorded the pilot’s actions.
I looked around the cabin like any curious passenger. Once the trip started, I would be noticeable if I looked to the front too often. During this part of the trip, I had to be very careful to remain inconspicuous. If my pretending to be Uncle Matt looked phony, I would be under more suspicion for having tried it. Fortunately, it was natural for the dad to be talking to the kids, turned away from me. As we left the sub, I would make a point of engaging him again, something easy like, “Quite a trip, wasn’t it?”
The ocean was quiet between the surface fish and the coral reef, so I had a chance to think about other possible targets.
The cruise ships. If they hijack the sub, maybe they could sink a ship by ramming it.
This idea increased the sweating a bit, although the compartment was air conditioned. Two things argued against the cruise ship idea, at least for this trip. Terrorists—like the guy I was sitting next to?—would want to use explosives to sink a cruise ship. It would be a spectacular show, and something the authorities could not claim was an accident.
For the second reason, I tried telling myself that the team looked more military then terrorist. In other words, they might attack something, but they might not be on a suicide mission, like the real zealots.
I gave this more thought and decided I was guessing. Their calm manner could have been military discipline, or it could have been how zealots behaved when they finished their final prayers and got down to business. For all I knew, the baggy shorts they wore concealed weapons and explosives.
I was back to sweating, back to being worried.
Did Abby consider the possibility of direct action during this sub trip? Does she know things she isn’t telling me? Am I considered expendable?
The fact that the sub was descending deeper was a good sign. If they wanted to take over the sub, maybe go after a cruise ship, they would have hijacked it close to the surface. Instead, we were at ninety feet, approaching a coral reef teeming with fish. I almost jumped when the black shirt next to me spoke.
“Look at all the fish.”
His English was nearly unaccented and he was making an effort to smile and point.
I couldn’t tell if he was just making conversation, or trying to draw me out for some other purpose. But instead of continuing the conversation, he went back to watching the fish. I remembered to watch my breathing as I tried to relax and think about possibilities.
Abby and I had done some brainstorming about how a tourist sub could be used in Pearl Harbor. We knew the Navy controlled ship access to the Pearl Harbor Channel. It was possible they would close the channel entirely during the conference, maybe even pull an antisubmarine net across the entrance, or deploy hydrophones to detect underwater activity. A sub wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near Ford Island.
If Langley had additional information, or their own theories, they weren’t sharing with us. All Abby and I could do was gather information and pass it along to the suits.
The next forty minutes went by without any surprises. No sudden, shouted command from the leader, no desperate struggle with the black shirt next to me, no guns going off, shattering the plastic windows. We surfaced, climbed the stairs to the blue sky, and took the shuttle boat back to the beach.
It had been an underwater adventure, a peaceful tourist voyage—this time.