The captain looked about forty. He had a square, rather Scandinavian face with a black crew-cut just going gray. He had shrewd, humorous eyes but a dangerous mouth and jaw. He was sitting behind a neatly stacked metal desk smoking a pipe. There was an empty coffee cup in front of him and a signal pad on which he had just been writing. He got up and shook hands, waved them to two chairs in front of his desk, and said to the officer of the watch, “Coffee, please, Stanton. And have this sent, would you?'' He tore the top sheet off the signal pad and handed it across. ”Most Immediate.''
He sat down. "Well, gentlemen. Welcome aboard. Commander Bond, it's a pleasure to have a member of the Royal Navy visit the ship. Ever been in subs before?''
“I have,'' said Bond, ”but only as a supercargo. I was in Intelligence---R.N.V.R. Special Branch. Strictly a chocolate sailor.'' The captain laughed. “That's good! And you, Mr. Leiter?'' ”No, Captain. But I used to have one of my own. You operated it with a sort of rubber bulb and tube. Trouble was they'd never let me have enough depth of water in the bath to see what she could really do.''
“Sounds rather like the Navy Department. They'll never let me try this ship full out. Except once on trials. Every time you want to get going, the needle comes across a damn red line some interfering so-and-so has painted on the dial. Well gentlemen''---the captain looked at Leiter---”what's the score? Haven't had such a flood of Top Secret Most Immediates since Korea. I don't mind telling you, the last one was from the Chief of the Navy, Personal. Said I was to consider myself under your orders, or, on your death or incapacity, under Commander Bond's, until Admiral Carlson arrives at 1900 this evening. So what? What's cooking? All I know is that all signals have been prefixed Operation Thunderball. What is this operation?''
Bond had greatly taken to Commander Pedersen. He liked his ease and humor and, in general---the old Navy phrase came back to him---the cut of his jib. Now he watched the stolid good-humored face as Leiter told his story down to the departure of Largo's amphibian at one-thirty and the instructions Bond had given to Domino Vitali.
In the background to Leiter's voice there was a medley of soft noises---the high, constant whine of a generator overlaid by the muted background of canned music---the Ink Spots singing, “I love coffee, I love tea.'' Occasionally the P.A. system above the captain's desk crackled and sang with operational double-talk---”Roberts to Chief of the Boat''---“Chief Engineer wants Oppenshaw''--- ”Team Blue to Compartment F''---and from somewhere came the suck and gurgle of a pumplike apparatus that sounded punctually every two minutes. It was like being inside the simple brain of a robot that worked by hydraulics and electrical impulses with a few promptings from its human masters.
After ten minutes, Commander Pedersen sat back. He reached for his pipe and began filling it absent-mindedly. He said, “Well, that's one hell of a story.'' He smiled. ”And strangely enough, even if I hadn't had these signals from the Navy Department, I'd believe it. Always did think something like this would happen one of these days. Hell! I have to carry these missiles around, and I'm in command of a nuclear ship. But that doesn't mean that I'm not terrified by the whole business. Got a wife and two children, and that doesn't help either. These atomic weapons are just too damned dangerous. Why, any one of these little sandy cays around here could hold the whole of the United States to ransom---just with one of my missiles trained on Miami. And here am I, fellow called Peter Pedersen, age thirty-eight, maybe sane or maybe not, toting around sixteen of the things---enough to damn near wipe out England. However''---he put his hands down on the desk in front of him---"that's all by the way. Now we've got just one small piece of the problem on our hands---small, but as big as the world. So what are we to do? As I see it, the idea of you gentlemen is that this man Largo will be coming back any minute now in his plane after picking up the bombs from where he hid them. If he's got the bombs, and on what you've told me I'll go along with the probability that he has, this girl will give us the tip-off. Then we close in and arrest his ship or blow it out of the water. Right? But supposing he hasn't got the bombs on board, or for one reason or another we don't get the tip-off, what do we do then?''
Bond said quietly, “We follow him, sit close on his tail, until the time limit, that's about twenty-four hours from now, is up. That's all we can do without causing one hell of a legal stink. When the time limit's up, we can hand the whole problem back to our governments and they can decide what to do with the Disco and the sunken plane and all the rest. By that time, some little man in a speedboat we've never heard of may have left one of the bombs off the coast of America and Miami may have gone up in the air. Or there may be a big bang somewhere else in the world. There's been plenty of time to take those bombs off the plane and get them thousands of miles from here. Well, that'll be too bad and we'll have muffed it. But at this moment we're in the position of a detective watching a man he thinks is going to commit a murder. Doesn't even know for sure whether he's got a gun on him or not. There's nothing the detective can do but follow the man and wait until he actually pulls the gun out of his pocket and points it. Then, and only then, the detective can shoot the man or arrest him.'' Bond turned to Leiter. ”Isn't that about it, Felix?''
"That's how it figures. And Captain, Commander Bond here and I are damn sure Largo's our man and that he'll be sailing for his target in no time at all. That's why we agreed to panic and ask you along. One gets you a hundred he'll be placing that bomb at night and tonight's the last night he's got. By the way, Captain, have you got steam up, or whatever the atom boys call it?''
“I have, and we can be under way in just about five minutes.'' The captain shook his head. ”But there's one bit of bad news for you, gentlemen. I just can't figure how we're going to keep track of the Disco .''
"How's that? You've got the speed, haven't you?'' Leiter caught himself pointing his steel hook threateningly at the captain, and hastily brought it down again to his lap.
The captain smiled. “Guess so. Guess we could give her a good race on a straight course, but you gentlemen don't seem to have figured on the navigational hazards in this part of the ocean.'' He pointed at the British Admiralty chart on the wall. ”Take a look at that. Ever seen a chart with so many figures on it? Looks like a spilled ants' nest. Those are soundings, gentlemen, and I can tell you that unless the Disco sticks to one of the deep-water channels---Tongue of the Ocean, Northwest Providence Channel, or the Northeast--- we've had it, as Commander Bond would say. All the rest of that area''---he waved a hand---“may look the same blue color on a map, but after your trip in that Grumman Goose you know darned well it isn't the same blue color. Darned near the whole of that area is banks and shoal with only around three to ten fathoms over it. If I was quite crazy and looking for a nice cosy job ashore, I'd take the ship along surfaced in ten fathoms---if I could bribe the navigator and seal off the echo-sounder from crew members. But even if we got a long spell of ten fathoms on the chart, you got to remember that's an old chart, dates back to the days of sail, and these banks have been shifting for more than fifty years since it was drawn up. Then there's the tides that set directly onto and off the banks, and the coral niggerheads that won't show up on the echo-sounder until you hear the echo of them smashing up the hull or the screw.'' The captain turned back to his desk. ”No, gentlemen. This Italian vessel was darned well chosen. With that hydrofoil device of hers, she probably doesn't draw more than a fathom. If she chooses to keep to the shallows, we just haven't got a chance. And that's flat.'' The captain looked from one to another of them. "Want me to call up the Navy Department and have Fort Lauderdale take over with those fighter bombers you've got on call---get them to do a shadowing job?''
The two men looked at each other. Bond said, "She won't be showing lights. They'll have the hell of a job picking her up at night. What do you say, Felix? Maybe we'd better call them out even if it's only to keep some sort of a watch off the American coast. Then, if the Captain's willing, we'll take the Northwest Channel---if the Disco sails, that is---and bank on the Bahamas Rocket Station being Target No. 1.''
Felix Leiter ran his left hand through the mop of straw-colored hair. “Goddammit,'' he said angrily. ”Hell, yes, I suppose so. We're looking fools enough already bringing the Manta on stage. What's a squadron of planes? Sure. We've just got to back our hunch that it's Largo and the Disco . Come on, let's get together with the Captain and whip off a signal that doesn't look too damned silly---copy to C.I.A. and to your Chief. How do you want it to go?''
“Admiralty for M, prefixed Operation Thunderball.'' Bond wiped a hand down over his face. ”God, this is going to put the cat among the pigeons.'' He looked up at the big metal wall clock. "Six. That'll be midnight in London. Popular time to get a signal like this.''
The P.A. system in the ceiling spoke more clearly. “Watch Officer to Captain. Police officer with urgent message for Commander Bond.'' The captain pressed a switch and spoke into a desk microphone. ”Bring him below. Prepare to cast off lines. All hands prepare for sailing.'' The captain waited for the acknowledgment and released the switch. The captain smiled across at them. He said to Bond, "What's the name of that girl? Domino? Well, Domino, say the good word.''
The door opened. A police corporal, his hat off, crashed to attention on the steel flooring and extended a stiff arm. Bond took the buff O.H.M.S. envelope and slit it open. He ran his eyes down the penciled message signed by the Police Commissioner. Unemotionally he read out:
"PLANE RETURNED 1730 HOISTED INBOARD, DISCO SAILED AT 1755, FULL SPEED, COURSE NORTHWEST STOP GIRL DID NOT REPEAT NOT REAPPEAR ON DECK AFTER BOARDING.
Bond borrowed a signal blank from the captain and wrote:
MANTA WILL ENDEAVOR SHADOW VIA NORTHWEST PROVIDENCE CHANNEL STOP FIGHTER BOMBER SQUADRON FROM FORT LAUDERDALE WILL BE ASKED THROUGH NAVY DEPARTMENT TO COOPERATE WITHIN RADIUS OF TWO HUNDRED MILES OFF FLORIDA COAST STOP MANTA WILL KEEP CONTACT THROUGH WINDSOR FIELD AIR CONTROL STOP NAVY DEPARTMENT AND ADMIRALTY BEING INFORMED STOP PLEASE INFORM GOVERNOR ALSO ADMIRAL CARLSON AND BRIGADIER FAIRCHILD ON ARRIVAL.
Bond signed the message and passed it to the captain, who also signed, as did Leiter. Bond put the message in an envelope and gave it to the corporal, who wheeled smartly and clanked out in his heavy boots.
When the door was shut, the captain pressed down the switch on the intercom. He gave orders to sail, surfaced, course due north, at ten knots. Then he switched off. In the short silence, there was a flurry of background noise, piping of bosuns' whistles, a thin mechanical whine, and the sound of running feet. The submarine trembled slightly. The captain said quietly, "Well, gentlemen, that's that. I'd like to have the goose a bit less wild and a bit more solid. But I'll be glad to chase her for you. Now then, that signal.''
With only half his mind on the wording of the signal, Bond sat and worried about the significance of the Commissioner's message and about Domino. It looked bad. It looked as if either the plane had not brought back the two bombs, or one of them, in which case the mobilization of the Manta and of the fighter bombers was a pretty meaningless precaution, hardly justified by the evidence. It could easily be that the crashed Vindicator and the missing bombs were the work of some entirely different group and that, while they chased the Disco , the field was being left clear for SPECTRE. But Bond's instincts refused to allow him to accept this possibility. As cover, the whole Disco -Largo set-up was one hundred per cent watertight. It could not be faulted in any respect. That in itself was enough to arouse Bond's suspicions. A plot of this magnitude and audacity would only have been conceived under faultless cover and down to the smallest detail. Largo could have just set off on his treasure hunt, and everything, down to the last-minute plane recce of the treasure location, to see if there were any fishing boats about for instance, fitted in with that possibility. Or he could be sailing to lay the bomb, adjust the time fuse for perhaps a few hours after the deadline to allow time for its recovery or destruction if England and America at the last moment agreed to pay the ransom, and get far enough away from the danger area to avoid the explosion and establish an alibi. But where was the bomb? Had it arrived on board in the plane and had Domino for some reason been unable to go up on deck to make her signal? Or was it going to be picked up en route to the target area? The westerly course from Nassau, heading perhaps for the Northwest Light, through the Berry Island Channel, fitted both possibilities. The sunken plane lay westward, south of the Biminis, and so did Miami and other possible targets on the American coast. Or, after passing through the channel, about fifty miles west of Nassau, the Disco could veer sharply northward and, after another fifty miles of sailing through shoal water that would discourage pursuit, get back into the Northwest Providence Channel and make straight for the Grand Bahamas and the missile station.