I finally got around to the submarine in this chapter! Also introduced two of the main characters. Unfortunately, this chapter's ending is a bit lame and I'll edit it when I have time.

The Steel Whale of Andaman

The placid, azure surface of the Andaman Sea, embellished by coral reefs and fringed by coastal outcrops jutting precariously into the verdant sea grass plains, stretched towards the western horizon until it blended seamlessly with the spotless sky above. Overhead, the tropical sun blazed in full mid-summer glory, cuddling the cool, tranquil waves with its overbearing radiance until they became lukewarm as bathwater. Laziness prevailed under the intense heat. The garrulous gulls ceased their interminable squabbling in favor of short naps beneath the coconut palms - the last refuge from the scorching sands grilling their webbed feet. Traditional fishermen likewise abandoned their dingy dhows, preferring the soothing relief of their air-conditioned shacks over the paltry reward of one or two extra catches. Only the rambunctious dolphins proved exception to the rule. Driven by both innate playfulness and insatiable hunger, they skillfully wove among the craggy corals in pursuit of fish and squid, sunlight glistening off their lustrous hides when they occasionally took to the air with the grace and audacity of Olympic gymnasts.

A sonorous ululation, followed by the hasty dispersal of dolphins, suddenly perturbed the tranquility of the sea. Great plumes of water erupted skyward as a steel behemoth, whose once untarnished glossy coat was now mottled by patches of brown rust and missing anechoic tiles, breached the surface like the mighty whale it so resembled. The teardrop hull remained briefly airborne before slamming down in spumes of white and beryl that persisted long after the fulminating echoes subsided. Flocks of startled gulls blanketed the sky with their cream-white wings while the fishermen, unwilling to forsake the comforts of their dwellings for even one moment, peered suspiciously through the grime-slathered windows. They closed their venetian blinds as soon as they identified the source of the commotion. Most of them grew accustomed to these fusion-powered blackfish on their many sojourns to the uninhabited shoals of South China Sea where whole fleets of them, abandoned by the shrinking wet navy, lied rusting next to the derelict piers like pods of beached whales. Fishermen found no use for them other than the high quality metal plates they occasionally scavenged from the eviscerated hulls. They took no further heed of the steel colossus even as it edged towards the far side of the inshore islets, whose sandy inclines segregated the bay from the open water. The metal whales off the Paracels, they reasoned, sometimes attracted great schools of fish and perhaps this one might bring them here as well.

Another ululation, shriller and louder than the first, pierced the stagnant air as UNAN Muskellunge slowed to a halt just shy of an islet's shoals. The circular hatch atop the sail plopped open shortly after the horse-shoe shaped anchor struck the gravelly bottom with a dull thud. A slim young man of twenty, whose jet-black eyes matched his silky, shoulder-length dark hair, nimbly scaled the corrugated step-ladder leading outside the conning tower. He took a deep breath when he emerged from the musky, dust-filled compartment and shut his eyes as he savored the intoxicating redolence of the sea air saturating his lungs. It smelled too much like home for him to realize that he was actually in South Asia. Three years ago he departed from his beloved hometown of Galveston on a sweltering summer's day like this one; nary a cloud in the bright blue sky and scarcely a breeze to ameliorate the suffocating heat. Back then submarines were a complete mystery to a fresh high school dropout like him. Yet he found himself helplessly captivated the moment he set his eyes upon the lofty sail, flanked by diving planes the size of rooftops, swiftly ascending from the turbid water of Galveston Bay until it came level with the hurricane dikes lining the shore. It was love at first sight with the grunting, water sprouting beast in front of him; a ship at once decrepit and magnificent, ancient yet state of the art, and ultimately hideous but beautiful. For the first time in his life he had realized his true purpose – to serve aboard the majestic beast crouching before him till the end of his military career.

"Hey Clarke! Wanna go for a swim?"

Clarke Necpol turned about and found his jet-black eyes staring into the green, mischievous ones of his roommate of three years, Alfredo Manning, who was clad only in a discolored manatee grey speedo and the pair of murky goggles dangling from his neck. Short even for a submarine crew, the peak of his comically oversized head barely reached Clarke's shoulders but he more than made up for it in stoutness. Bulging muscles rippled beneath his coarse, olive skin as he stretched his arms and legs in what was better described as a show-off of his physique than a genuine warm up.

"No thank you." said Clarke as he beheld Alfredo's exercise in amusement. "Just got up for some fresh air, that's all. Still got work to do. Cap will flay me if I don't get that damn boiler plate replaced soon." He paused and gestured at the stern of the ship. "If I remember correctly you still have some stuff to attend to yourself. Where is that report on SAM seekers that you promised since last November?"

"Oh please, I could get that done in five minutes if I wanted." Alfredo haughtily responded as Clarke repeated word for word after him. "Frankly I don't know understand the idiots who designed them in the first place. Anti-air missiles on a submarine? Oh please! Can't wait till try them out against a decent drone… Oh wait. We can't even afford decent torpedoes right now. When was the last time we even had a live fire exercise…"

"Doesn't mean that we shouldn't take it seriously."

"Like I care! I don't know about you Clarke, but I am ready to get off this rotting carcass of a ship the next rotation and never touch a sub for the rest of my life."

"There is no future for us here." he continued excitedly. "Perhaps we'll actually go somewhere once the tour is complete. Just think about it Clarke. Maybe we'll get to join the REAl navy. At worst I bet the Air Force will take us… Heard that it ain't too hard if you've got the proper connections…"

"Sounds good to me. I heard that the Air Force is actually pretty strict about how they handle their SAM seekers." A faint smirk appeared on Clarke's face as he turned around to resume his tacit appreciation of the sea. For a moment he was pleasantly surprised by the lack of response and maintained his smug expression until a pair of sinewy arms grasped his waist from behind.

"What in the hell do you think you are doing?!" exclaimed Clarke, his skinny arms futilely struggled against the constricting embrace while Alfredo dangled him over the guard rail. He thought he heard a mad cackle before he was hurled overboard, his flailing limbs narrowly missing the diving plane before he belly-flopped in the water below. Instantly incapacitated by the shock of the impact, he floundered helplessly in the shallows, gurgling on seawater until he recovered enough of his senses to elevate his head above the surface. Only then did he realize that he failed to clear the deck which, fortunately for him, remained submerged beneath three feet of water. It took several tries for him to struggle back to his feet. He heard a wild shriek just as he proceeded to wade back to the conning tower. Looking up, he saw, much to his dismay, Alfredo perched upon the guard rail like an over-sized bird of prey, grinning zanily and spreading his arms as he poised to embrace the ocean below.


In a demonstration of his phenomenal agility, Alfredo pounced, panther-like, from the spindly guardrail and somersaulted twice before diving feet first into the water. Although he easily cleared the deck with his jump, he struck the water with such force that the ensuing splash almost knocked Clarke off balance. No sooner had Clarke regained a foothold when Alfredo's shaggy brown mane, finally adhering to his scalp in its waterlogged state, emerged atop the scintillating water.

"Water is damn hot!" announced Alfredo enthusiastically, completely oblivious to Clarke's disproving glare. "What do you think, Clarke?"

"I think that you are an ASS who is better off locked up with that Stinson brat in solitary confinement." Clarke fumed whilst massaging the throbbing bruises on his chest and abdomen. Alfredo merely whistled.

"Now that is what I call harsh. You need to lighten up a bit buddy."

"…And YOU need to stop acting like a retard all the time and perhaps learn to be responsible for once! See the water on the deck?" Clarke splashed the water for emphasis. "You know what would've happened if it was just a tad bit shallower? I could've died, you moron! You are married with kids so why don't you start acting your age?"

"You mean act like your typical old man?" Alfredo scoffed. "No thank you mister. You see, I don't see age as a physical attribute. I prefer to think of it as a state of mind. You age only when you act all stiff and uptight all the time. What is wrong with having a little fun from time to time?"

"Immortality," he added sternly before tapping his temple with his sausage-thick index finger, "is in here."

"That is very profound…"

"Thank you! Someone finally understands my…"

"BULLSHIT!" Clarke clapped his hands slowly prior to the inevitable reiteration. "Very profound, but still bullshit."

"I particularly liked the part where you were like." he pulled off a decent imitation of Alfredo tapping his head. "You are totally right… Coming up with such ideas does require significant MENTAL output!"

Unable to hold back any further, Clarke guffawed until he grew too giddy to stand up straight. Though the nascent side-stitch in his upper abdomen mingled painfully with the preexisting bruise it was still immensely satisfying for him, as he did many times prior, to watch Alfredo's brushy unibrow contort in fury.

"You better take that back pal." Alfredo pointed his finger threateningly. "Or else I'll… I'll."

"Or what, stutter at me? Look bro. I oughtta be the one who should be angry, not you."

"That's it! You are going down!"

It didn't take long for Alfredo to make good of his bluster. With three quick strokes he bridged the distance to the deck and scampered up the slippery edge with almost preternatural swiftness. Sloshing through the thigh-deep water noisily, he almost caught up to his adversary before the latter dashed for the step ladder leaning against the sail. Clarke's leaner build and longer limbs proved advantageous in the race to the top. Gifted with a spider's dexterity, Clarke deftly scurried up the narrow ladder and soon gained a comfortable lead over his athletic but bulky pursuer. He straddled the railing at the peak when he suddenly noticed a slight palpitation in his left ear. Believing the water in his ear was somehow responsible, Clark tilted his head and shook vehemently but the noise continued to rise in pitch and amplitude. Befuddled, he instinctively craned his head in the direction of the sound and spotted the triangular silhouette of a plane against the horizon.

It approached speedily, assisted in no small part by the afterburning of the twin turbofan engines in its posterior. A coat of light silver RAM paint, strategically garnished by metallic gray striations, covered every inch of the plane's sleek exterior and briefly dazzled Clarke's eyes with a sudden peak in brilliance as the plane passed beneath the sun. Several seconds elapsed before the aircraft swept directly overhead, endowing Clarke with a better view that helped him discern the sharply chined radar dome – characteristic of a fighter with RCS reduction requirements-surmounted by a crown of gilded canopy. A pair of upturned canards preceded the oversized, cranked-delta wing protruding inelegantly from the boxy, lift-body fuselage, fluttering imperceptibly as the aircraft slightly adjusted its bearing and altitude. They angled down sharply when the plane suddenly banked to the right; tenuous gossamers of energized vortices streaming from the leading edge extensions and past the sides of the vaulted fuselage during the strenuous maneuver. As if spooked by the submarine beneath it, the fighter plane executed a 180 degree turn before blood-orange flames shot out from the clam-shaped nozzles once more.


So entranced was Clarke in his observation of the aircraft that he failed to notice Alfredo's vice-like grip on his forearm. He stoically bore Alfredo's abuse until the plane once more became just a spec in the distant horizon. At this point Alfredo's constant twisting and bending of his scrawny limbs became too irritating for him to ignore.

"Let go you…"

"Say sorry first! That or uncle!"

"Let go, I am really not in the mood!"

"Then I'll use more persuasion!"

A stern voice suddenly blared over the intercom just as the two engaged in renewed tussles.

"Technicians Manning and Necpol, please report to the cafeteria immediate. Technicians Manning and Necpol, please report to the cafeteria immediately."

"Cap…" Alfredo muttered as he slowly relinquished his hold over Clarke's forearms. "I guess we better get back soon. We'll miss the feast if we don't."

"The feast?"

"Chef said he'll do something special today, in honor of the happy hour! Just hope that no seaweed noodle is involved this time." Alfredo chuckled as he squeezed down the hatch. "Now come on!"

"Now imagine that." said Clarke as he followed Alfredo back down the ship's belly, thinking about fighter jets while navigating the maze of narrow corridors leading to the cafeteria.