Far below the deep sound channel the hunter waited. A probe into the channel returned sounds of many sorts – the frying noise that betokened a shrimp colony, the thrumming of distant merchant ships, the unguessable plaints of whales. All of these were analyzed, sorted, saved. None were the quarry.
Gradually another signal emerged. Whisper-soft, it flirted with the edge of detectability. Alert, every sense attuned to this one trace, the hunter sifted the signal from the cacophony and confirmed its presence. With infinite patience the hunter resolved bearing, distance, speed. Satisfied that the quarry’s path would enter its window of opportunity the hunter, drawing on energy husbanded from minuscule temperature gradients, awakened weapons systems long dormant against this chance. Rising through the channel, the hunter turned to attack, confident of victory.
“Got one!” Hunter crowed. “The little bastard’ s awake and up above the thermocline.”
Without a word Hardface turned the attack boat toward the decoy the hunter was pursuing and armed the seekers. The hydrofoil slipped through the water just fast enough to keep the hull dry.
“Not too fast,” Hunter cautioned. “But not too slow, either. Let him fire one shot, we really want the Mama-San.”
Hardface twisted his lips slightly in what was, for him, an encyclopedic comment. He knew Hunter couldn’t see his face from the rear cockpit. He also knew Hunter needed to chatter just as much as Hardface needed not to. The fact that neither minded was why they were a team.
Hunter tweaked the signal their decoy was emitting to lure the Korean subsurface drone. The revised signal showed just enough flutter to suggest a defective system without overselling it. The drone responded with a slight increase in engine sound as it accelerated to launch an attack.
“Seeker away!” Hunter sang out.
The needle-shaped missile arched away from the hydrofoil, driven by an electromagnetic launch rail. Two miles away it entered the water at 60 knots and ignited its terminal propulsion engine.
The hunter detected the presence of the weapon far too late for avoidance. Its frugal engines were designed to conserve energy at the expense of speed. The seeker found the command module with its primary warhead. Its secondary weapons array zipped past the hunter to the weapons pod trailing behind it, pregnant with a full load of anti-submarine destructors.
The hunter felt no emotion. Had that been possible, its frustration at its inability to warn its masters would have been monumental. As it was, awareness simply disappeared without a trace.
“Ringmaster, this is Lion-tamer,” Hunter recorded his message for burst transmission. “Dead kitty, dead kitty. Strongman is cleared into the zone.”
“Did you invent those stupid names?” Hardface asked in a rare burst of loquacity.
“Of course,” Hunter acknowledged proudly. “I suppose you’d rather I say, Admiral this is LT Hunt. We killed the last drone. The submarine is safe to proceed into its ship-killer missile launch zone.'”
“What, then? I’d really like to know.”
“Got the last one,” Hardface replied. He punctuated his soliloquy with a sniff.
“Figures,” Hunter responded.
A burst message arrived. Just to annoy Hardface, Hunter played it back as audio.
“Lion-tamer, Big Top. Return to base, refuel and reload. We’ve got another zone to clear.”
“Did you hear that?” Hunter asked. “Are we good or what?”
Hardface silently turned back toward their mother ship and ran the power up to cruise. There wasn’t any enemy in a position to hear them now. He reflected silently that war was like pinball – if you won you got to play again. As long as you didn’t run out of tokens.