True Patriots | Sample Chapter

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ONE “TARGET THEIR BRIDGE.” Claire gave the order. She could feel the gaze of her crew. Would she deliberately kill? She’d been captain for barely two months. Too junior. Not tested. And a woman. Only minutes earlier, she had watched endless waves pound a small fishing boat, the spray and incessant snow rendering it invisible at times, despite the blazing cone of light from the helicopter above. Off the coast of Nova Scotia, the winter nor’easter that had paralyzed New England with two feet of powder retained enough of its fury to imperil any ocean vessel. A kilometre away, the CH-149 Cormorant, shaking violently a few wave heights above the turbulent ocean, was trying to keep its searchlight fixed on the ship that bucked between mountains of water. “It’s the MV Atlantic Mariner. Out of Boston,” the pilot said over the radio.

Russell Fralich Claire squeezed the microphone dangling from the ceiling. “Captain O’Brien, do you see anyone on board?” A moment of white noise and then, “There must be. Will advise.” The sailor manning the radio on the bridge of the coastal patrol vessel HMCS Kingston, Petty Officer Second Class Sullivan, turned to Claire. “Maritime Command said that the vessel never acknowledged radio contact, ma’am.” “They never asked for any help.” Lieutenant Wiseman, executive officer and second-in-command, brushed past in the tight space, as Claire sat in the captain’s chair. “Doesn’t matter, XO.” Something’s not right, Claire thought. “There’s no transponder signal,” Sullivan said. “We’re not going anywhere.” My first rescue. “It must have drifted.” Wiseman nodded. “And it looks like a lobster boat anyway.” “Isn’t lobster season here in the spring?” Sullivan kept his gaze on the radio’s lights and buttons. “Agreed.” Claire leaned forward in thought. “There’s something weird about this. We keep trying.” “They shouldn’t be out in this storm, ma’am,” said Sullivan. “How could they not have seen it coming?” O’Brien’s voice crackled on the radio: “No one sighted. Do you want us to continue?” Claire framed the distressed vessel in her binoculars for a moment, lowered them, then pointed to Wiseman. “Distance to target?” “Weather’s interfering with radar accuracy.” 2

TRUE PATRIOTS “Best guess.” “Three thousand metres and closing, ma’am.” She noticed a new spike of stress in Wiseman’s voice. Claire raised her binoculars, flicked some loose strands of hair out of the way, and continued looking at the tiny shaft of light blinking between shifting mounds of black water. My first chance to do something good. She’d wait it out. She grabbed the microphone again and squeezed the button. “O’Brien, this is the Kingston. Hold position. Continue the search. Advise when low on fuel.” “Acknowledged.” A moment later, the pilot’s voice returned with a new edge. “There’s someone down there.” Claire saw it, too. A single dark figure emerged from the bridge of the helpless vessel. The helo narrowed the spotlight until the person stood like an actor alone on a stage. The man — he walked like a man even at this distance — took a few steps and held what appeared to be a short pole. Wiseman turned to her. “Vessel at two degrees starboard, ma’am. Range, one kilometre.” A change in the familiar background rustle told her that the six-person bridge crew had moved into a higher state of readiness. She saw the fishing boat suddenly spring to life, with running lights bright. The boat swung toward the Kingston, appearing as a small supernova against the black of the frothing sea. This was not a normal reaction. “XO, report,” she said. Wiseman watched the radar display for a moment. “Target approaching. Ten knots and accelerating.” Don’t they want to be rescued? “Collision course?” Wiseman turned to face her. “Roger, ma’am.” 3

Russell Fralich Was the boat deliberately trying to collide with the Kingston? They were supposed to be on a rescue mission. None of the threat simulations during her training at CFB Esquimalt had ever foreseen this situation. She remembered what her instructor had said: When in doubt … “Sound action stations,” she ordered. A perceptible pause told her they were wondering if she was serious. Then the XO acknowledged her command. “Roger, ma’am. Sounding action stations.” Most of the crew was older than her thirty-one years, and she wasn’t sure how they would react to a new and untested officer in what might become a crisis. The looping klaxon blared on the bridge and throughout the ship. “Ship-to-ship.” She pointed to Sullivan. “Ready, ma’am.” She gripped the microphone: “Atlantic Mariner. This is the captain of the HMCS Kingston. We are here to assist you. Acknowledge.” Only static crackled on the speaker. “Repeat message every thirty seconds.” “Aye aye, ma’am.” Sullivan scribbled the message on a small pad. She didn’t have much discretion as the captain of a coastal patrol vessel. She needed permission from her superiors back in Halifax to use the Bofors 40-mm cannon that could annihilate the boat in one shot. With a long chain of command that went up to the minister of defence, she was unlikely to get it within a day. Until then, she could use the M2 fifty-calibre machine gun mounted to the starboard side of the bridge. She had a single machine gun to defend the ship. 4

TRUE PATRIOTS But was the fishing boat a threat? Its action was strange and unexpected, but she wasn’t sure if it posed a danger or if there was some other, more innocent explanation. Maybe the boat’s crew was merely trying to get closer to aid in their rescue. Any threat situation had to meet three criteria. First, there was intent. The boat hadn’t threatened anyone. It seemed to ignore the helicopter with the blazing light. “Let’s see if that ship is deliberately trying to ram us. Steer one three five.” The helmsman repeated her command and swung the wheel. She grabbed onto the overhead handle as the ship veered dramatically to the right, still pitched by wave after wave. She watched the fishing boat’s reaction. “Midships,” she said. The light from the Atlantic Mariner dimmed for a moment, then quickly brightened again. “Target is following our move, ma’am,” said the petty officer on the bridge, scanning the fishing boat from the bow. So that’s intent, Claire thought. Or do they just want to get rescued? Why didn’t they acknowledge our hail or the helicopter hovering above them? Her indecision felt familiar: Should she pursue a law degree and satisfy her parents’ ambitions, or join the navy? Simple. Keep it simple. Stick with the three criteria, she told herself. The second criterion was proximity. “Distance?” she called. “Six hundred metres. Closing at thirty knots,” said the navigator. A quick mental calculation and she estimated 5

Russell Fralich that the boat would penetrate the ship’s three-­hundredmetre safety perimeter in less than twenty seconds. Then she would consider it a mortal threat. Seconds to decide. O’Brien returned on the radio. “There’s something else, Kingston …” She watched the man and saw the pole shift until it pointed directly at the helicopter. “RPG! RPG!” O’Brien’s voice sounded more angry than scared. A flash from the ship ahead. The rocket-propelled grenade ripped past the chopper as it banked sharply to the right, dipped, and accelerated away. “Confirm RPG,” Claire said into the microphone, suddenly oblivious to the klaxon blaring in the bridge. Captain O’Brien answered in short bursts over the radio. “RPG. Confirmed. Taking evasive action.” She could see the helicopter veer away from the boat at an extreme angle. “Did they just fire at the helo?” said Claire to no one in particular, standing in disbelief. Wiseman looked at the tactical screen in front of him. “They missed, ma’am. The helo is leaving at high speed. Recommend we do the same.” She hopped back into the captain’s chair and glowered at the XO. The MV Atlantic Mariner now satisfied the third criterion: capability. They had a weapon that was a threat to the ship and her crew. One RPG could do serious damage to the bridge or the engines, or blast a hole below the waterline, potentially sinking the ship. 6

TRUE PATRIOTS “Close up, M2,” she ordered. It was the only weapon she could command in the time that she had. You couldn’t stop the boat with the gun, but you could stop her crew. “Target their bridge. Now.” She stared into the XO’s eyes until he repeated the command. The sailor hesitated for a second before answering “Aye aye, ma’am” over the commlink. She could feel the gaze of the other crew on the bridge. Their unease about her qualifications as captain weighed on her like a physical force. Too young. Too inexperienced. Too female. She fought her drifting doubts. “Ship-to-ship,” she said to Sullivan. He flicked a switch on the radio console. “Ready, ma’am.” She yanked the microphone: “Atlantic Mariner, this is the Canadian warship HMCS Kingston. We are trying to assist you. You have fired on our helicopter without known reason. Do not approach this ship. Stop your engines, cease fire, and acknowledge, or we will fire upon you.” She stood up again. “Range and speed,” she said with a distinctly more serious tone: one she knew the crew would notice. “Four hundred metres. Thirty knots.” She squeezed the mike in her hand. “I say again. Stop your engines and acknowledge or we will fire upon you.” Only a few seconds before it got too close. “Three hundred metres.” The boat had just entered her exclusion zone. “Any change?” Wiseman said, “No, ma’am. Collision course. Recommend —” 7

Russell Fralich “M2.” She heard her gulp over the noise of the bridge. “Open fire.” The gun coughed with a low thumping rat-tat-tat-tat as bullets knifed through the bridge of the little boat only a couple of soccer fields away. Claire could see tracers streak to the boat and splinter the bridge. The man holding the RPG was nowhere to be seen. Sparks leapt skyward, and the boat stopped dead in the water, limping lifelessly on the swells. “Cease fire, M2.” The gun stopped immediately. “Full stop.” The engines went silent. The fishing boat was now a fiery, smoky pyre. The Cormorant returned to the scene like a cautious cat. Under the gaze of its spotlight, the boat listed to its port side, sliding into the waves. In less than a minute, it was gone. Leaving only a faint grey cloud, it sank beneath the waves, along with its crew and any evidence that would explain their odd reaction to the rescue. She glanced at the two sailors who manned the machine gun outside the bridge. They looked stressed. They had killed someone, probably for the first time in their lives. She had to reassure them. They had defended their ship and crew. They hadn’t hesitated to obey her order, even if she wasn’t yet a captain that everyone trusted and respected. She called to them over the commlink, “Good shooting.” Her hands trembled holding the microphone. She wiped sweat and salt from her forehead with her sleeve. A chill shivered through her body. She had killed someone. She tried to mask how she really felt with a thin smile. The bridge crew turned toward her. There was shock in their expressions. 8

TRUE PATRIOTS She took a deep breath. She had more than passed her first test as captain. Maybe her parents would now acknowledge her career choice with at least a twinge of pride. But fatigue tugged at her, threatening to drag her down deep like the mysterious boat. The crew was waiting for her to say something more. She raised the microphone. Her hand was still shaking. She rammed out each word before the shock sucked her voice away. “Well. Done. Everybody.” Another breath. Scowled at the XO. “The vessel we encountered presented a direct and immediate threat to the ship, and you dealt with it with professionalism.” “Ma’am.” Sullivan pulled off his headphones. “How do we know there isn’t another one out there?”


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