Before the Kings
Summary: Robert Bridger is presumed dead after a battle in the North Atlantic in May of 2014…but his three-year-old son will appear eighteen years later. Where has Robert been, and what is his story?
Authors' Note: Although the first part of this story is canon-compliant, the last chapter will tie in to Freedom is Always an Unfinished Task, the story I am co-authoring with SailorSol. 'Freedom' is available on my profile now.
Disclaimer: Nothing you recognize belongs to me, and I'm certainly not making any money off of this! I'm a hard-working Naval officer in the real world, but I certainly don't own seaQuest, much though I might wish I did.
Chapter 1: "Presumed Dead in the North Atlantic"
8 May 2014
The mini-sub was starting to fill with water. The slow leak sprung two days before was growing into a flood, and they could no longer maintain depth. Even worse, the incoming seawater had started to affect their inertial navigation systems, and the gyro had finally given up six hours earlier.
"Weps?" ET2 Niles spoke softly, sliding into the seat near where Robert was sitting, staring at the boat's systems display.
Location: xx' " [N/S*ERROR*] xxx' " [E/W*ERROR*]
Course: xxx˚ [T/R*ERROR*]
Speed: 10 kts
Depth: 1247 feet
O2 Remaining: 169 hours
Battery Power: 37%
Water Temperature: 30˚F
"Yeah?" he forced himself to keep his voice level; the seventeen other sailors in the mini-sub did not need to hear him panic. Not now. By the time the watch in the control room on board their submarine had regained consciousness, Robert had been the senior surviving officer; the others almost hadn't found him since he'd been buried half underneath their dead XO and a bunch of shorted-out equipment. His broken legs were badly splinted and he was strapped into the engineer's seat on the mini-sub; he felt useless sitting there like this, but the others were looking to him for leadership.
"I don't think this is gonna work, sir," Niles said softly.
Robert twisted to look at him, wincing. Big mistake. His legs were throbbing despite the pain meds they'd fed him; the emergency supply cabinet was one of the few things actually intact on the mini-sub, but he'd tried to keep the amount of narcotics he took down. He had a responsibility to make good decisions, and he couldn't do that if he was doped up.
Any more than I already am, anyway. He forced himself to focus.
"Why not?" he asked with a frown. He's been building a compass for three hours. Even I could probably manage that, and Niles is supposed to be our resident genius with electronics.
Niles held up the compass in answer, and a moment passed before Robert's fuzzy brain noticed which way the needle was pointing in relation to the bow. Then he just stared.
"The gyro must have been damaged worse than we thought, and since the GPS antenna was down, I couldn't recalibrate it," the electronics technician whispered. "I didn't think about building a compass when we thought it was working okay…but now I have…and we've been heading the wrong way for two days."
His stomach felt heavy. "North instead of South."
"Yeah." Niles' eyes were wide and frightened, and Robert understood why. He had always been good at navigation, and he knew where Connecticut had been when the North Sea Confederation subs had fired upon her and North Carolina. The battle had been short and Connecticut crippled early on, so they hadn't travelled many miles from that known position. "I think we may be under the ice now, sir."
Stop. Don't say that. Don't even think it.
The two NORPAC attack subs had been operating near the polar ice cap when they were attacked, and although both boats were equipped for under-ice operations, no one had thought to equip the mini-subs for such a contingency. The small escape subs weren't ever intended to get through the ice, and that meant…
Don't think it, Bobby.
He had been hoping to get the mini-sub out into open waters where they might be spotted by another NORPAC or allied vessel, or at least get into range of a communications buoy so that they could call for help. Conservative use of their battery power had extended their range far enough to make that possible—but Robert could do the math in his head. Now the battery was draining faster due to the cold water, and they didn't have enough power to even make it back to where Connecticut had sunk.
He should have noted the decreasing water temp earlier. Their only surviving sonar operator, STG1 Franklin, was in worse shape than Robert was and unconscious—all of the others' bodies remained in the crunched up forward end of Connecticut. Robert knew they had been lucky to find so many survivors, but their skill sets were all over the map, and nine of the eighteen were injured. No one was at their best, and they hadn't been thinking beyond finding someone to rescue them. Of course, that was a perfectly natural and human reaction…but now it just might kill them.
Robert did the math again, and then one more time, trying not to snarl out loud. He hated math, always had, but he was sitting there with two broken legs and could crunch numbers as well as any of the others.
Two days of sailing at ten knots had eaten up sixty-three percent of their battery power. They'd travelled approximately 480 miles during that time, and if he turned around now, he could probably make another 140 or so miles before they ran out of battery power. He could extend how long they had by crawling along at a knot or two, but with the current near the North Pole, the seas would whip the mini-sub around and there would be no way to control which direction they went in. Stop it, Bobby. The look on your face is making Niles nervous.
"I think you might be right," he said softly, staring at the display again. Battery Power: 36%. Things just kept getting better and better.
"You want I should keep working on the gyro, Weps?" Niles asked hesitantly. The poor kid was only twenty-three; he was one of those fast track petty officers who made third class right after "C" school and had advanced to second class on the first try. But this little clash—as unexpected as it was, since the North Sea Confederation was supposed to be allied with NORPAC—had been his first taste of combat, and it had clearly rattled him.
Better to keep him busy, then. "Please," Robert replied with the most reassuring nod he could manage, and then had to stop himself from nodding, because his head just wanted to keep bobbing like some demented looking doll. "See what you can't do."
Niles headed off, leaving Robert alone to stare at the screen again. The instructors at the Academy always preached about the burdens of command, but he doubted that any of them had ever experienced anything remotely like this. Stuck in a mini-sub without enough power, with water slowly leaking in and no hope of rescue…what the hell was he supposed to do? Lie to them and say everything would be okay? No one would believe him. There were only eighteen of them in the boat, and most of the others had probably overheard Niles, anyway. They all knew what came next.
We should have just stayed on Connecticut. At least any rescuers would have known where to find us, then. Robert grimaced. But no. I had to go and drive off into the sunset instead of being smart and sitting still. Good job, Bobby! You're getting the remainder of your crew killed. Well done.
Except it wasn't that simple, and he knew it. Even in his worst moments. Some of the crew had gotten off of Connecticut, or at least the other mini-sub had been gone. The damage had been so bad that the crew in the bow hadn't even been able to communicate with the engineers back aft, so Robert had to assume that the other sub was gone because they'd taken it. His group had needed more than twenty-four hours to make it to the beat-up escape sub they were now on, and by then their submarine had turned into a freezing cold hulk without power and with air rapidly growing stale. The backup scrubbers had been working, sort of, but without the reactor, Robert and the seventeen sailors with him would have been dead hours ago if they'd stayed with their submarine.
And since we weren't even supposed to be where we were, it's not like anyone would come looking for us, Robert thought with another scowl. There had been another boat with them, of course, one of the newer Virginia-class boats, USS North Carolina. But Robert had no way of knowing if Stark's boat had gotten clear, or if she had sunk somewhere a bit further away. The mini-sub's sensors were crap, after all, and for all Robert knew, North Carolina could have been sitting on the bottom less than a mile away from Connecticut.
"What's the plan, boss?" Charlie Dauro, Connecticut's communications officer, asked quietly, sliding into the seat Niles had vacated not long before.
Robert snorted, pushing his happy thoughts aside. "I'm open to ideas at this point."
Charlie shrugged. "There's not much to do other than turn around and hope someone notices us, is there?"
"No. There isn't." Don't sound so dejected, damn you! "Guess we should do that, then, shouldn't we?"
The forced smile didn't convince anyone, least of all Robert. This wasn't his first taste of combat; he'd commissioned right before World War III ended, and though there hadn't been much submarine combat in the last eighteen months of the war (not after the Aegean Campaign had ripped the heart out of the enemy, anyway), he had seen some small actions on board Montpelier, his first boat. Besides, Connecticut had been policing underwater border disputes ever since he'd reported on board a year and a half earlier. They hadn't gotten into any situation nearly this bad, but at least Robert had been in battle, and he knew how to deal with that kind of pressure. Not that it had done him any good—he'd preformed fine in combat, but what was he supposed to do now?
Charlie started punching up a new course as Robert tried to shift into a more comfortable position without using his legs. It failed, of course, and he had to bite back the need to cry out in pain. Finally, however, he managed to pull himself out of his slouch using his arms only, and then fought back the need to swear aloud in frustration. I'm not usually this moody. The painkillers must be affecting me worse than I thought.
If it got any worse, he'd have to tell Charlie to take command of their little group. As the Weapons Officer, Robert was the junior department head on board Connecticut, but at least he'd been in the Navy for six years and on board the fast attack submarine for two years. Poor Charlie had only been on board six months, and Robert would do his damnedest to make sure that the young officer didn't have to deal with this nightmare.
"How're you doing, Weps?" Charlie asked softly. "You need some more morphine? There's plenty in the med kit."
"Nah. It's making me screwy enough already. If you give me another shot, Lord only knows what I'll say."
The Commo shrugged, clearly trying to make light of the situation. "Could be funny."
"Yeah, but I'm not here to provide your entertainment." But he managed to smile, just a little bit.
"I've found some cards, if anyone's interested," Andrews, the surviving helmsman spoke up.
"How'd you find cards on a mini-sub?" Robert asked, twisting around to look at Andrews—and twisting too fast. If it hadn't been for the straps holding him to the jump seat, he'd have landed on the floor. As it was, he wound up slumped in the seat and with his right leg bent upwards at sharp angle.
Robert yelped in pain, grabbing for the armrests and trying desperately to pull himself upwards. But his muscles were all trying to convulse, and he couldn't get a grip—Charlie and Niles each grabbed an elbow and pulled him back into a sitting position. Chest heaving, Robert tried to speak, but he just couldn't find his voice. Several moments of their fussing later, he'd finally caught his breath.
"Thanks," Robert wheezed.
"No problem, sir," Niles replied softly.
"They were in the emergency survival box," Andrews piped up, and Robert gave him a confused look.
"Six decks of cards," the sailor replied. "I guess they expect us to be bored out here,"
Staring at the display didn't get him anywhere, so he finally glanced at Charlie, trying to inject authority into his voice instead of pain. "Alright, Commo. Get us turned around and let's see how far we can get."
A very un-officer like giggle almost escaped him following that comment, but Robert bit it back. I refused the extra morphine, damn it! Why am I getting giddy now?
"Aye, sir." Judging from the look on Charlie's face, he saw the laughter trying to escape, but fortunately he chose not to comment.
An hour passed, and then two. The interior of the mini-sub was only getting colder, and the water was continuing to slip past the box patch they'd rigged up hours ago, but so far Charlie had been able to maintain depth despite the additional weight. Soon enough, though, Robert knew that the ballasting system wouldn't be able to keep up, and they might wind up on the bottom before they even ran out of battery.
I love my job, he thought acidly, drifting in and out of an uneasy sleep. Fortunately, the sailors on board were all professionals, and no one was panicking yet. Truth be told, Robert half-wondered if he was going to panic before his sailors did—he was feeling increasingly loopy, and though for the moment he could fight the urge to laugh maniacally, he wasn't sure how long that would last.
"Weps?" the helmsman spoke up as Robert started blankly at the ceiling. A moment passed, and then he tried again. "Weps?"
Robert blinked, and forced himself to focus. Back, you, he told the urge to giggle. "Yeah?"
"I can't maintain depth, and Mr. Dauro says that he can't ballast us anymore," was the nervous response. "We're going down."
Location: xx' " [N/S*ERROR*] xxx' " [E/W*ERROR*]
Course: xxx˚ [T/R*ERROR*]
Speed: 10 kts
Depth: 1454 feet
O2 Remaining: 161 hours
Battery Power: 27%
Water Temperature: 29˚F
Robert blinked, squinting at the monitor. Had he really been out of it for eight hours? "Oh. Shit."
But they needed more than that, so he shook himself mentally. Hard. You're an officer, Bobby, and you're in command, whether you like it or not. Act like it! And then he shook his head, too, when his vision started to blur. He scraped a hand over his face, forcing the pain in his legs out of his mind. "Sorry. Don't mind me—I've never woken up well."
Nervous laughter filled the mini-sub.
"We'd best launch the rescue buoy, Charlie," he said. "Before we get too deep for anyone to find us. What's the depth here, anyway?"
"We're near the bottom already. Average is about sixteen hundred feet," the other officer replied promptly, shooting him worried looks that Robert ignored. Again.
He didn't want to mention that he was starting to have a hard time reading the display, and that looking at it was giving him a headache. Besides, Charlie had volunteered good news, for once. The boat's crush depth was 1,800 feet, so at least when they landed on the bottom, they wouldn't implode. Talk about small favors, he managed not to say aloud. Instead, we'll freeze to death from the water coming in or die when the batteries do. Great.
"Buoy away," Andrews reported a moment later. His voice dropped to a whisper. "Here's to hoping someone hears it…"
Ironically enough, the answer came almost immediately. The radio crackled.
"U.S. Navy submarine, this is Fogsbore Research Station. You folks need some help?"
Eyes wide, Robert stared. I have got to be hallucinating. He shook his head again. Does morphine give you auditory hallucinations? Never mind that it had been hours since the shot had worn off; he was quite certain that there wasn't anything else that could have caused this. But the call repeated itself a moment later, with a slight variation.
"This is Fogsbore Research Station calling U.S. Navy submarine in distress. If you can hear us, we are about two miles from your current position bearing two-zero-eight. We have no rescue equipment, but if you can get to us, we've got a docking collar that will mate with your boat."
"Are you hearing that?" Robert finally whispered to Charlie.
The ensign only nodded, looking numb, and Robert reached out to grab the radio's microphone. His voice wanted to shake as he said:
"Fogsbore, this is U.S. Navy submarine. We're a mini-sub escaped from a downed warship and would be grateful for the help—can you give me your exact location, please?"
As they answered, he tried very hard not to think about how lucky they were, and simply to get the job done. The others were managing to contain their enthusiasm, so why did Robert want to start giggling in relief? I bet Dad would know what to do right now, he thought to himself. And he wouldn't answer his rescuers by breaking into mad giggles over the radio, either, so suck it up, Bobby.
Viewing the situation distantly, Robert was surprised how professional his voice sounded, and a little corner of his brain told him that his dad probably would have been pleased with him right now. But almost as soon as he put the handset down, Robert drifted back into that same drugged sleep, not knowing that his crew members had given him another shot of morphine three hours earlier because they couldn't stand to see him in pain. All he knew was that maintaining his self-control was damn hard, but he was managing. Somehow.
About an hour later, Robert was carried rather ingloriously out of the mini-sub on a stretcher by Andrews and Niles, with Charlie fussing over him like a mother hen. He hated not being able to move under his own power, but with two broken legs, there really wasn't any other option.
The first thing he noticed was that the interior of the research station didn't look at all like the paradise it had sounded like when he first heard the voice on the radio. The second was that the careworn woman looking down at him was kind of pretty, and he didn't think that was any drugs talking. She wasn't exactly gorgeous, but at the moment, he probably would have fallen for any rescuer that happened to be female. Besides, there was something in her eyes that reminded him of—
"I don't suppose your baby boat has a mothership around, does it?" she asked with a frown.
That brought Robert back down to earth, and he levered himself into a sitting position with an effort. "Not anymore," he said heavily, then held out a hand. "Lieutenant Robert Bridger, U.S. Navy. I am—was—the Weapons Officer on board USS Connecticut. She's out there. On the bottom. Everyone with me is all that's left, though I think some of the rest of the crew got off before we did. Thank you for rescuing us. We only had a few hours left on our battery."
"Elizabeth Hagglemeyer," she introduced herself, shaking his hand. "Welcome to the forgotten station."
"The what?" He squinted; now his head was really starting to pound. "I thought you said this place was called Fogsbore."
"It is." Her smile was tense. "But before you go on thinking that you've gotten lucky finding us, you might want to know that this station, as near as we can tell, fell off of everyone's radar two years ago. We were supposed to be evacuated, but the boat never came, and all our long-range communications equipment got toasted long before that. You're the first outsiders we've seen in twenty-seven months."
Robert could only stare.