Cruising the darkened plain of the oceanic abyss, Seaview was a ghost in grey, haunting the depths of eternal night. Beyond her lighted bow ports, there was nothing to be seen but the muddy bottom of the sea without even a fish or coral polyp to give a respite to Seaview's bored captain.
"All instruments functioning normally and no change in the hull pressure readings," Chip Morton reported briskly as he strolled over to Crane's side, then lowered his voice. "But there are indications of tectonic activity. I think we might be due for another 'quake."
Lee Crane nodded. "Is the bathysphere back aboard?"
"Kowalski said Fisher decided he wanted another sample run. I'm giving them another ten minutes before I start screaming." Chip paused, gazing out at the uninspiring view of murky water and silt that faced them. "So, are you going to tell me why we've got such an exciting mission?" he asked casually.
Lee flicked a glance at him and grinned. "According to the Admiral and Dr Fisher, the sediment layer on the edge of the abyss contains plant and animal remains that have become fossilised. As there was a recent sea quake in the area, Fisher thinks some of the more ancient deposits will have been brought to the surface. No other boat except Seaview could possibly get deep enough to be able to take samples for analysis."
"Gee, what would they ever do without us?"
"Pick on someone else?"
"Do I detect a tiny hint of sarcasm there, Lee?" Admiral Nelson's voice made both young men jump in consternation and turn to face the man. Short and stocky Harriman might be, but no-one who ever met him could mistake his air of authority.
"Sorry, Admiral," Crane apologised with a rueful grin. "But the inactivity is starting to get to all of us. Is Fisher going to keep us here much longer?"
"I doubt it. Patterson tells me there's another quake on the way and I don't want Seaview endangered."
Lee slipped a quick glance at Chip, who gazed back at him innocently. Crane knew better than to believe those blue eyes. He wouldn't put it past his Executive Officer to have deliberately sent Patterson down to drop subtle
hints in the Admiral's ear.
"Captain?" Riley's polite hail from sonar made Lee excuse himself and head back to see the blond.
"I'm not sure, sir," Riley answered, flipping a couple of switches so that Crane could listen in. "I'm picking up some pretty peculiar noises."
Crane frowned as he listened to the strange liquidly bubbling sounds that spilled from the speakers. He glanced at Nelson as the older man came up beside him. "Have you ever heard anything like that?"
"It sounds familiar," Nelson admitted, rubbing his cheek.
"Cetaceans?" Chip suggested warily. "Bubble netting as they hunt?"
"Could be," Crane agreed.
"We're a little too deep for whales," Nelson observed however. "Lee, have Kowalski and Fisher come back aboard. I'm not sure what that is but at these depths, I don't want to take any chances with Seaview's safety. We'll back off to s safe distance and watch for a while."
Lee nodded with a flicker of relief, gave Morton a course change and then headed for the radio to call the bathysphere.
* * *
"Look, doc," Kowalski urged the fair haired man peering eagerly at the net the crewman had captured in the bathysphere's claws. "I'm sure you're right and there are thousands more of these nut things down here, but I don't see that they're real interesting."
"You, Ski, are a philistine," the scientist sniffed, his green eyes sparkling with scientific curiosity over their find.
"Nah. American born and bred me," Kowalski grinned. "Despite the name."
Fisher ignored him."Think of the mining opportunities if these nodules contain minerals. There are a wealth of possibilities in the seas but so many countries are loathe to put any money into underwater exploration and colonisation because there's no profit in it. "
"I'm sure, doc. But we don't have time to look for any more of them. The captain wants us back on board." Kowalski signalled Seaview to start the bathysphere's withdrawal the sediment layer, gloomily aware of how poor visibility was after the amount of silt they had stirred up.
"Imagine it," Fisher went on, staring dreamy eyed from the ports. "A whole colony out there. Accommodation domes, fish farms, mining platforms. A whole community living under the sea. Why Seaview could be the first of a fleet of submarines dedicated to preserving the ocean environment...."
Kowalski glanced at him and grimaced. Fisher was a nice enough guy, but he did go on at times. He tended to tune the scientist out until Fisher actually wanted him to do something. He checked the radio finder to get Seaview's distance, grateful to be headed towards her sleek shape. Two hours stuck with Fisher was enough for him. He hoped Mr Morton would choose someone else to pilot him next time. The Exec couldn't possibly have that much of a down on him.
"Ski? What are these readings?" Fisher's voice held a sudden note of uncertainty and the crewman glanced at him, then at the sonar display.
"Seems to be some kind of disturbance in the sediment layer. The captain mentioned it. I guess it's nothing to worry about."
"You guess?" Fisher looked at him wide eyed. "Don't you know what these readings mean?"
"Sorry, no. I haven't seen anything quite like them," Kowalski made the admission reluctantly. He was proud of being Seaview's top sonar operator and didn't like having to admit that he didn't know what the anomalous reading was. "Have you?" he added pointedly.
"Well, no," Fisher said slowly.
"Then relax. Sit back and enjoy the ride."
* * *
"Captain!" Morton's sharp bark as he strode towards him made Crane glance up from the chart table in surprise.
"What is it?" Chip never used that tone unless he was worried and the unflappable Executive never worried unless he had good cause.
"We're losing buoyancy," Morton reported grimly, keeping his voice low. "Ballast problem?"
"I've checked. Our ballast tanks are reading in the green, but we're dropping."
Lee scowled. "Adjust for the difference," he ordered and headed for ballast control himself to check the instruments. As Chip had said all the readings were in the green and they changed obediently as Morton made the buoyancy correction. Moving casually, Lee headed back to check their depth and wasn't surprised when Chip managed to drift up beside him. As they watched, Seaview continued her barely perceptible sinking.
"Captain," Sparks hailed from the radio shack. "The bathysphere is aboard."
"Then I think we'd better get out of here," Crane decided promptly. "Ten degrees up bubble, Mr Morton. Let's surface."
"Are sir." Morton swung to the helm. "You heard the captain. Ten degrees up bubble, ahead....." Chip never got to finish as Riley let out a yelp of alarm, interrupting him.
"Captain! The sea floor, it's...." The sonar operator never got to finish as Seaview bucked furiously and nose dived as a vast tide of silvery bubbles poured upwards to engulf her and drag her downwards into the abyss.
* * *
Shoving aside a heap of lab equipment that had come down on top of him, Nelson gingerly rolled over and peered around him in the sudden darkness. He could hear Seaview's hull moaning her distress like a wounded whale. She seemed to be still at last though and Nelson edged cautiously to his knees, deciding it was safe to move. He groped his way through the darkness to the blinking light on intercom, hopefully clicking the microphone in an effort to get through to the bridge. There was no answer, but the dim red of the emergency lights abruptly flickered on. Swearing under his breath, Harriman felt his way out of the lab and headed for the bridge. He ran into several crewmen on the way, most of them still stunned but nonetheless striving to get to their battle stations despite the lack of orders from the bridge. Nelson paused to have a couple of men taken to Sickbay, then hurried onwards.
The bridge was in chaos when he un-dogged the hatch and hopped through into the control room. Several crewmen were busy controlling fires and their garish light through the smoke gave the room a Hellish appearance in the dim lighting.
"Someone get those damn air-scrubbers on line!" Crane bellowed from the far side of the control room and Nelson let out a sigh of relief at hearing him. He made his way forwards, doing his best to keep out of the way of the hustling crew. "Riley! Get down to the Circuitry Room and find out what's happened to Main Power. Sparks..."
"Lee, if you won't go to Sickbay, will you at least hold still!" Morton's voice rose irritably and Nelson felt a stab of alarm.
"I'm fine. Sparks, get the intercom back on line!"
Nelson finally reached the nose. Morton had Crane pinned on the periscope steps and was doing his best to keep a compress on the captain's blood soaked forearm: in between swearing at Lee, he too was issuing instructions to the crew. Chaotic as it seemed, everything seemed to be coming under control.
"What happened?" Nelson demanded quickly, giving Lee an assessing glance.
"We're not sure," Crane answered. "There was some kind of explosion, but it was only bubbles, no fire or volcanic action. I don't know what brought us down. We're stuck in the sediment on the edge of the abyss."
"Can we blow ballast?"
"First thing we did," Morton said bitterly. "Our tanks are intact, but we're about as buoyant as a brick."
"Our hull's sound. But we only have emergency power. Communications are out," Crane added grimly.
There was a chugging noise from above them and a general sigh of relief went round as the air-scrubbers came on line and started to suck the smoke from the air. "All right. I'll take over," Nelson decided. "Get down to Sickbay, Lee."
"Sir?" Crane looked up at him in alarm. "I'm fine."
Harriman eyed his friend's grey face and gave his arm a pointed look, then glanced at Morton. Chip shook his head a fraction.
"He's lost a lot of blood," Morton said quietly. "Ellis should take a look at him.
"Right then, you're not fine, Lee. We can't have you frightening the crew by passing out." Nelson collared a passing ensign to take Lee to Sickbay. Leaving Chip to issue instructions to keep up pressure on the compress, Nelson turned his attention to salvaging his boat and getting main power back on line.
* * *
Gingerly swinging his long legs off the bunk, Lee sat still for a long moment, taking several deep breaths to clear the giddy feeling from his head. Lying down for a couple of hours while his boat was in trouble, was not his idea of how to be a good captain: never mind what Dr Ellis said. Seeing the main power come back on had made him restless. He needed to be in the Control Room where he could do some good. He glanced round warily, then carefully eased to his feet.
"Sir? You okay?" That came from crewman Kelly. The young red-head had been halfway down a ladder when Seaview nosedived and he had taken a spectacular nosedive of his own that left him with a broken leg.
"I'm fine," Crane assured him confidently. "Get some rest." Giving the younger man a quick pat on the arm, Lee padded warily out of the room and into the corridor. Fortunately Ellis was still too busy patching up battered men to worry about an errant captain and Lee was able to sneak out without being noticed. The sling he disposed of rapidly and tucked his hand in his pocket to support his arm. The stitched and bandaged gash in his arm was throbbing painfully, but he didn't think it was bad enough to warrant a sling.
"Captain Crane?" Fisher was the last person Lee wanted to deal with. Plastering an interested look on his face, he turned to look at the scientist.
"Yes, what can I do for you?"
"Do you have idea what's going on?"
That's what I was about to go and find out, Lee reflected gloomily. "We're having a buoyancy problem," he said out loud however. "Nothing to worry about. The Admiral will soon figure it out."
"I'm sure. Do you think he could spare me a few minutes?"
"He's rather busy right now." Crane warned doubtfully, then flinched as Fisher took an eager hold on his arm.
"Perhaps if I show you then. It's a wonderful discovery."
Before Crane could protest he found himself being dragged down the passageway, unable to get a word in edgewise while Fisher chatted away rapidly.
* * *
A few minutes later, Fisher hauled the captain into the lab he had been assigned. Wile chaos reigned around him, the scientist had still managed to get his samples installed. Tubes of icky looking mud and sediments decorated most of the work surfaces, but one Fisher had kept entirely for his nodules. They were set out in a neat little ring, glinting wetly blue-black in the light.
"What are they?" Lee asked, his curiosity stirring despite himself. "They don't look like magnesium nodules."
"Ah, magnesium was my first thought too," Fisher beamed at him. "I've been running tests for the last couple of hours. That's what I wanted to talk to the Admiral about. You see, they're not actually mineral at all."
"They're organic. I want to dissect one. But this shell is so hard, I've already broken two drills on it." Fisher gave the captain a hopeful look.
"I'll send someone along with a diamond drill," Crane responded to his hungry puppy dog expression with a faint grin. "What do you think's in them?"
"Well, they're like nothing I've ever seen before. We were examining sediment turned up from the Devonian period, so they could be prehistoric. I wasn't expecting anything like this!"
"So they're what? Fossil eggs?"
"That's most likely," Fisher chirped happily as he picked one up and turned it over. "On the other hand, see these markings? There were prehistoric jellyfish that looked similar to this."
Lee traced the lines with one fingers. "They could be legs," he said slowly. "All folded up."
Fisher peered curiously at the markings. "You know, you could be right," he mused and dumped the nodules into Crane's hand. "Here, hold this a second." Leaving the bewildered captain, he rummaged through his box of equipment and came up with a sharp scalpel. Returning to Crane, he pried delicately at one of the slightly raised ridges on the nodules under surface. Lee watched in fascination for a second,then had a sudden flash of survival instinct as the knife slipped. "Excuse me, doc," he said, hastily fending the scientist off and dropping the nodule back on the table top. "But I've already had one set of stitches today and I....." Lee's jaw dropped as the nodule came suddenly to life, sprouting legs, a tail and eye stalks and making a dash for the edge of the table.
"Catch it!" Fisher squawked as it dropped to the deck. He dived after it as Lee lunged for the hatch and slammed it shut. Reaching his foot, the tiny creature attacked his shoe ferociously, its sharp talons leaving claw marks in the leather. Reluctant to crush it, Lee hopped nimbly aside and let Fisher slam a bucket over the top of the creature and scoop it into an empty tank.
"What is it? A lobster?" Lee asked in wonder, peering in at the creature. It was doing its best to change colour, its blue back shell taking on the colour of the work surface under the glass tank. A shiny circle of black button eyes on stalks waved up at him, while a set of ten legs scrabbled at the glass under the creatures compact body.
Cooing in triumph over his specimen, Fisher glanced up with a shrug. "Something like a lobster, I would guess. If you send me that diamond drill down, maybe I can dissect one of the others."
Lee stirred uneasily. "But they could be alive," he protested. He had never enjoyed biology classes in school once he found out about dissecting the frogs and he was no keener on Fisher chopping up his new find.
"So?" Fisher gave him a blank look.
"So, they might be worth more alive."
"But how will I find out what makes them tick then?"
"I don't know. By studying them?" Crane paused, glancing at the other nodules still clustered on the table. "And maybe you should put the others in something before they escape too?"
* * *
"I still say you should be in Sickbay," Morton muttered darkly an hour later to his friend. In his opinion Lee still looked far too pale for his liking. Dr Ellis had been up ten minutes ago to find him, and the captain had run him off the bridge, determined that he was going to stay put. Once Lee had his mind set on something it was very difficult to dissuade him.
"Ellis has plenty of other people to worry about besides me," Lee said firmly, taking another bite of the sandwich Morton had ordered the galley to bring up. None of the senior officers were likely to be changing watches until Seaview was off the bottom, but they still needed to eat. "Will you quit looking so worried? The Admiral didn't order me off the bridge, did he?"
"Only because you distracted him with what Fisher's found. Besides, I can handle things here without you."
Lee gave the blond a hurt look. "Thanks," he murmured.
"Oh, come on, You know what I mean. We may be stuck on the bottom, but Seaview herself is intact. We have air and power. Sparks should have Communications back on line any minute now. You could afford to go lie down for a couple of hours and be ready for when we lift."
"I could say the same thing to you."
"Ah, but Executive officers are supposed to take over when the captain is hurt."
"Call this little nick hurt?"
"Want to arm wrestle and see who wins?"
Crane grimaced. "Why do I have to have an Exec who’s a nag?" he complained.
"Why do I have to have a captain that's too stubborn to admit he's human?" Chip snorted back at him. "Besides, you wouldn't have me any other way."
"True," Lee gave him a tired grin and glanced around the bridge. Hard work had cleaned up most of the mess left by the fires and most of the consoles were functioning again. He ran a tired hand over his face. Truth to tell, he was feeling a little shaky.
"Even half an hour would help," Chip coaxed. "And it would be good for crew morale."
Chip shook his head in concern and lowered his voice. "Lee, you should see how you look. The half of the crew that isn't worrying about you is convinced we're all doomed because you won't rest despite how you look."
Crane blinked at him. "I look that bad?"
"Worse. Ellis said you'd lost a lot of blood. Hell, Lee, you're worrying me."
Hazel green eyes locked with blue for a moment, then Crane nodded reluctantly. "Okay. For once I concede. I am tired. I'll grab half an hours bunk time."
"Fine. I'll call you if we need you."
"If..." Morton said firmly. "Go on. Trust me. I can manage."
After a moment, Crane nodded and made his way towards the steps leading up to the next deck. Chip thought he would do as he said and go to his cabin. Stubborn Lee might be, but he wasn't a fool. With a sigh of relief, Morton turned back to the chart table. The last thing he wanted right then was for Crane to find out what Nelson had told him. After making a few tests, the Admiral had come to the conclusion that Seaview could be in great danger. In all likelihood their nosedive hadn't been caused by a mechanical failure, but by lack of buoyancy n the water itself. Hydrates forming under the sediment layer had no way of release under normal circumstances, but after a sediment slide - caused in this instance by the recent sea quake - the hydrates rose to the surface to break free in the form of gas bubbles. The enormous quantity of bubbles in the water ruined the buoyancy inherent in it that Seaview and every other boat depended on to stay afloat. She had sunk in the froth. Nelson was sure they would be able to refloat the boat when the gas finished dispersing, but in the meantime they were stuck. Their main problem at the moment was worrying over whether or not an explosion would follow.
* * *
There were now five of the spider lobsters - as Fisher had decided to call them - scurrying around in the tank. To make them feel more at home, he had added a few rocks, water and sand. Despite Crane protest, he had managed to dissect one specimen and was happily showing its entrails to an equally fascinated Nelson.
"They're obviously prehistoric," he was explaining. "Apparently Devonian according to the ageing of the sediment layer where we found them. As far as I can tell, they appear to be some form of amphibious trilobite. Live bearers rather than egg bearers. Claws and teeth seem to suggest they're scavengers. I think they're shallow water dwellers too. "
"Nasty bite these suckers have on them," Nelson observed, eyeing the way the two biggest creatures were dismembering the chunk of steak Fisher had dropped in the tank. "How did you know they were meat eaters?"
"I didn't. They looked hungry so I figured I'd better feed them something. They ignored the seaweed and vegetables, ate the fish but seem to prefer steak."
"Expensive tastes," Nelson mused drily, sliding a look at the younger man. "And where did you get the steak from?"
"Ah," Fisher had the grace to look embarrassed. "I didn't think you'd object to the loss of one steak to preserve a scientific wonder like this."
Harriman snorted in amusement. "I dare say I'll survive the loss, but you owe me a steak dinner." He glanced at the tank where a squabble had broken out and frowned. The bigger of the two creatures sent the other one scuttling back into a corner to perch on a rock while the winner finished the meal off alone. "So, what made you decide they were amphibious?"
"They started to dry out and get very sluggish. Out of sheer desperation, I stuck them in water." Fisher prodded the dissected specimen. "This one didn't respond."
Nelson nodded thoughtfully. "Some species of frog can go into hibernation during droughts, only emerging when there's sufficient water for them to survive. They could have done the same thing. The water line could have receded and literally left them high and dry."
"They could even be a missing link. A shift from true marine trilobites to shore dwellers. The trouble's going to be keeping them alive until I can get them to a research facility."
"NIMR will be glad to offer our facilities," Nelson suggested.
"That's very kind of you," Fisher said smugly. "Isn't it amazing? I come here looking for a few fossils and wind up with the find of the century."
Nelson chuckled. "I'm sure that's what they said when they found the Coelacanth," he pointed out.
"That's only a fish. And a pretty ugly one at that," Fisher retorted. "These are trilobites. Everyone knows what they are. Imagine the response if we were to put them on display."
"I can see dollar signs, Herman," Harriman warned.
"Sorry. But I've never made a find like this before and research does have to be funded. How long until we can get to Santa Barbara?"
"That depends how long it takes us to get off the bottom," Nelson replied wryly. "I estimate another five hours for the gas to dissipate, then we should be able to surface and head for home."
* * *
"Hull checks completed, captain. Buoyancy tanks a-okay. All lights in the green." As he finished running down the list of checks on his clipboard, Chip took a deep breath and looked up at Crane. Lee had slept longer than he meant to and was very disgruntled with his friend for not calling him earlier, but he looked better for the rest.
"Looks like we're ready then," Crane answered calmly, letting his steadying gaze roam over the bridge crew.
"As ready as we'll ever be," Morton agreed. "Hopefully, we won't find we've missed a leak that the silt's sealing."
"Oh, a regular little ray of joy, aren't we?" Lee mocked him, then squeezed his shoulder in understanding and turned to Nelson. "Admiral, all checks are completed."
Nelson had been studying the view from the port for the last half hour, but as Crane hailed him he came back to the chart table. "Sonar still clear, Kowalski?"
"Not so much as a fizz, sir," the crew cut young man answered.
The Admiral raised an eyebrow at the amiable response, but didn't comment. "Well, I've seen no sign of any gas bubbles out there while I've been watching. I think we'd better risk raising her now. If we wait any longer there may be another slip. Go ahead, Lee."
"Aye, sir. Fast or slow? I suppose there could be gas trapped under us."
Pursing his lips, Nelson considered that idea with some reluctance. "Slow until we're clear, I think," he decided finally. "What might be under us has had time to leak away by now and we don't want to disturb any more sediment than we have to."
Lee nodded and ran a finger along the chart on the table. "Right. This course will take us out over the abyss and away from the sediment layers. Five degrees up bubble, Chip, but be prepared for full speed ahead if we need it."
"Yes, captain." Morton turned to pass his orders on while Crane picked up the microphone to warn the crew to stand by for shockwaves.
Seaview shuddered a few moments later, reluctantly heaving herself out of the mud. Clouds of silt rolled away from her hull and the view form the ports turned murky with mud as she rose.
"Kowalski, I want you stuck to that sonar like glue. You see anything and I want to know about it," Crane warned sharply.
"Aye, sir." Kowalski's flippancy had vanished in the face of danger. He was all proficiency now.
With one hand on the back of the planesman's chair, Morton was watching the changing readings on the control panel and murmuring minute adjustments to the sweating crewmen controlling the boat's rise.
"Captain! I'm reading bubbles," Kowalski sang out. "Something's happening."
"We've disturbed the sediment layer," Nelson guessed quickly. "Get us out of here, Lee."
Crane was still gripping the microphone and bellowed to the engine room to give them full speed ahead. Seaview responded with the powerful grace of a sprinter taking off from the gate, climbing rapidly away from the danger below her and out of the abyss. She lurched once, hurling half the crew across the control room as she dipped and threatened to dive again.
"Up bubble now!" Crane barked. "Emergency surface! Take us up!"
Sluggishly Seaview came out of her dive, clawing her way through the frothing water towards the surface and away from the dangers of the abyss. Finally her shudders started to lessen and her speed to increase.
"We're clear, sir," Kowalski called out. "Bubbles astern."
"Level us off, Chip," Crane said sharply. "We don't want to be the first submarine in orbit."
"Aye, sir," Morton was grinning as he turned back to the helm, feeling the indefinable tension in the air relaxing at Crane's good humour. Lee was already asking for a damage report and was relieved to find that Seaview was unharmed.
"Take us back to Santa Barbara. Seaview will need to be checked....."
"Admiral!" Fisher's sudden wail as he burst into the control room startled Nelson into silence. "My specimens, they've gone."
"Gone? What do you mean, gone?" Nelson echoed in astonishment.
"The tank over turned while you were fooling around up here! They all got out!"
"Couldn't you catch them?" Nelson asked in bewilderment.
"How? They're so fast they were into the floor vents before I could stop them. Do something."
Nelson could feel a grin threatening to break out on his face despite Fisher's anguish over his loss. "They're bound to head for food and water," he said, somehow keeping a straight face. "Captain Crane will arrange a search for them."
Crane stared at him incredulously. He was supposed to organise his crew into a search for five overgrown lobsters? "Oh, of course, Admiral," he said drily. "See to it, will you, Mr Morton?" He flicked a quick look at Morton and wasn't surprised to find him glaring at him. Ah well, what else were Executive Officers for?
* * *
Oh great, so why is Sharkey never on board when there's stupid job like this to be done? Chip Morton wondered half an hour later as he stood and fumed in the lab. He knew it wasn't Sharkey's fault. The Chief was entitled to the time off and had had a wedding to go to. But Chip did not want to be spending his time looking for lobsters. Even prehistoric ones. Right then, he half wished they were still stuck on the sea floor.
"Nothing in here, sir," Riley reported as he reversed out of the air vent he had been examining.
"The lab's clean," Patterson added, then wrinkled his nose at the cobweb he had found. "Relatively speaking anyway."
"I'll tell Fisher to dust," Morton replied amiably.
"I don't see how we're going to find them, Mr Morton," Riley said as he scrambled to his feet and brushed off his knees. "There's way too many nooks and crannies for them to hide in."
"Personally, I agree with you," Chip said drily. "But we have to at least look, Riley. Whether we find them or not is another matter. But at least we'll have done our best."
"Ours not to reason why, sir?" Patterson grinned as he joined them.
"Something like that," Morton agreed.
"Maybe we could lay some traps," Riley suggested. "The Doc says they're scavengers and they like meat. We could put some mousetraps out."
"Do we have any mousetraps?" Patterson wondered.
Riley's face fell. "Well, couldn't we make some?"
"I think we'll finish the search first," Morton said hastily. Riley's schemes had a nasty tendency to go wrong. "Pick up a couple of those nets and let's go find the little horrors."
Two Days Later
Coming across Chip Morton sitting in the Officers Mess with his head in his hands was an unusual enough sight for Crane to stop and sit down next to him with his coffee, rather than head back to his quarters and his paperwork.
"Chip? You okay?" he asked gently. Morton groaned. "That bad? You want me to get Ellis?"
"Huh?" Chip peeped at him between his fingers , then realized he had worried his friend and quickly shook his head. "Oh no, I'm okay. It's Fisher. That man is driving me crazy going on about his damn lobsters."
"They're technically trilobites according to the Admiral."
"I don't care. They're lunch as far as I'm concerned," Morton looked wistful. "Cooked, with a nice salad....."
"No sign of them yet then?"
"Oh there's signs of them. They keep leaving smelly little messages. But finding them? No chance."
"They need water. They must be getting it from somewhere."
"For all I know they're nipping out for quick swim and then coming back aboard."
"Well, you are the Exec."
"What exactly does that have to do with it?"
"Like you, you mean? Dumping this on me?"
Lee grinned. "What else are Exec's for?" Assign someone like Patterson to being in charge. Then Fisher can go bug him."
"Oh, yeah, that's right, he would, wouldn't he?" Morton grinned wickedly for a moment, then grimaced. "No, I can't do that. It wouldn't be fair. Besides, I'm not going to let a few crustaceans get the better of me."
"At a boy," Lee chuckled.
"Besides, I can always threaten to hang Fisher from the yardarm."
"We don't have a yardarm."
"He doesn't know that."
"Chip..." Lee protested.
"Okay, okay. So I'll keelhaul him instead. We do have one of those." Morton smiled dangerously and his eyes went of focus, "Or maybe I could fire him out of a torpedo tube."
"You need coffee," Crane interrupted his friend's Machiavellian plans hastily and pushed his own coffee mug in front of him. "And food. When did you last eat?"
Chip blinked back into focus on him and gave the captain a pointed look. "Probably more recently than you," he snorted, pushing the mug back. "You weren't at breakfast." Sharing breakfast had become something of a tradition for both young men: a time to share a conversation about something other than Seaview.
Lee looked embarrassed. "You want the truth?"
"I overslept. I wasn't expecting us to head back to Santa Barbara so soon and I have a load of paperwork to catch up on."
"So you stayed up half the night hoping to finish it? You're an idiot, Lee. It can wait. That's what you have a secretary for."
"You don't have Iron Ida for a secretary," Crane answered with a hunted expression. "She can't read my writing."
"Decipher your scrawl, you mean."
"It's no worse that yours," Lee retorted hotly, then sighed heavily. "I'll be so glad when Avril gets back."
"If you'd had any sense you'd have married her yourself like I told you. Only way to keep a good secretary."
"You know, you almost sound like you mean that."
Morton shrugged. "Too late now. You got time for lunch?"
"Well...." Lee glanced at his half finished coffee, then at his watch.
"The paperwork can wait. I need your help to catch these lobster thingys. Riley been going on about building a mousetrap come lobster pot and I'm starting to fantasise about letting him."
Crane got to his feet to follow Morton towards the galley. "Maybe the Admiral can help?"
"What? Build a lobster pot?"
"No, idiot. Figure out a way to trap them."
* * *
"He hasn't caught them yet?" Nelson chuckled in astonishment as he gazed up at Crane.
Lee was perched on the end of the Admiral's desk, picking absently at the edge of the dressing on his arm. "They're small and fast and they can use camouflage, what do you think?" he retorted with a grin. Then he shook his head. "Actually, I shouldn't laugh. These things are getting to be a menace. They've been into ship's stores. The cook found that out this afternoon." Lunch had been delayed by that particular discovery and Lee had been treated to the sight of his Executive Officer crawling around the floor of the galley's store peering into and under the food bins, chanting lobster recipes under his breath. "If we weren't arriving in Santa Barbara tomorrow, we'd be on short rations."
Nelson's chuckles faded into silence and he frowned. "I didn't realise Chip was having that much difficulty catching them," he admitted.
"They've got claws like tin openers if the damage they've done to the food bins are anything to go by. I dread to think what would happen if they started on any of the circuitry," Crane told him seriously. "I've been considering flooding the air vents with gas, but gassing them won't do any good if we can't find them and anything that's likely to kill them is likely to kill us as well." Lee grimaced and added gloomily. "Not to mention what I think Fisher would do to me for harming them."
"If they're endangering the boat, Fisher will have to put up with it," Nelson answered flatly, noting that Crane looked relieved by the comment. He tapped the notepad on his desk. "As it happens, I've been doing a little research of my own on the dissection Fisher did on the first specimen and I think I may have the answer." Glancing up at Crane, he grinned at his expression. "Squeamish, Lee?"
"No, but I haven't long had lunch," Crane answered with a weak smile. "Darn it, Admiral, the things are kind of cute. I don't want to kill them either."
"We may have to to protect Seaview. According to Fisher's results, there's a good chance that the Spider Lobsters are all pregnant."
"Pregnant?" Lee echoed in shock.
"It's a survival mechanism. During hibernation, chemical processes occur in the creature's body triggering the breeding cycle. They're ready to reproduce within hours of emerging from hibernation. "
"But all of them?" Lee's eyes were round in amazement. "Isn't there a male?"
"They don't have males, or females. They're hermaphrodites. If they've survived this long, then Seaview is probably a pretty good environment for them. I don't want to arrive in Santa Barbara over run by these creatures, so we'd better make a serious effort to do something about catching them. It shouldn't take long to put together what I need. We should have them all under control in a couple of hours."
* * *
"....a couple of hours?!" Chip hissed into Lee's ear some time later as he and the captain waited patiently for the Admiral to put in an appearance in the Missile Room. They were watching Riley busily fastening together a strange contraption that seemed to be made out of wooden slats from the crates Fisher's equipment had come aboard in and chicken wire. Where Riley had got the chicken wire from was anybody's guess, but the ex surfer was nothing if not resourceful. "I've been hunting these things for two days! Now, he says he could have done it in a couple of hours."
Crane winced slightly at the blond's volume at close proximity. "I know, Chip, I know," he soothed. "But you know what the Admiral's like."
"He could have told me."
"Chip, two days ago, he probably couldn't have done it," Lee said, wanting to placate him before Nelson arrived. "You know I appreciate what you've done."
"Hah!" Chip snorted in disgust and folded his arms, glaring at the opposite bulkhead.
"Well, if you're going to sulk...." Lee snorted back and huffily folded his own arms in deliberate mockery of his friend.
After a second, Morton gave in with a rueful chuckle. "Sorry, Lee. But it gets my goat some times when he doesn't tell us what's going on."
"I know how you feel." Crane agreed, then snapped his mouth shut as the Admiral briskly strode through the hatch.
"Ah, good. Everything's ready." Nelson beamed at them amiably.
"Yes, Admiral," Crane said mildly. "Exactly what are we ready for?"
"Catching the spider lobsters of course, Lee," Nelson retorted drily as he headed for the contraption Riley was tightening the last screws on.
"We guessed that, Admiral," Lee said ironically. "Care to enlighten us as to how?"
Nelson glanced at him, bemused by the captain's droll tone of voice. "Didn't I tell you?"
"No. You said to leave it to you and then told us to meet you down here."
"And since Beech has got the conn, I'd kind of like to get back to the bridge before we crash into something," Chip muttered under his breath to Crane. Lee made shushing gestures at him and smiled innocently at the Admiral. Nelson however chuckled.
"I've worked out some frequency modulations that the spider lobsters should object to enough to want to move away from them. I've been waiting for Sparks to modify his equipment so that we can pipe the signal into intra-ship communications."
"I'll bet Sparks loved that," Morton muttered.
Crane quelled his friend with a look. "Then what?" he asked.
"Now we're transmitting. The signals aren't harmful to us, but they might make some individuals a little irritable." Crane exchanged a wryly meaningful look with Morton, who merely glared at him silently. Nelson continued, oblivious to the exchange. "Remember what Chip said about bubble netting? I've applied the same principle here. The signals should drive the creatures into the Missile Room - as the largest area on the boat - and into the trap Riley's been building."
"It's got all the comforts of home," Riley offered helpfully. "Dark, cool, with plenty of food. They should love it."
"And they should be along any minute now," Nelson went on. "So, I think we'll start with opening the vent. If you don't mind, Chip?"
Morton shrugged and, beckoning for Riley to follow, obediently headed for the air conditioning duct. The crewman gave him a leg up onto the crates stacked against the bulkhead and Morton balanced on them as he reached for the mesh protecting the vent. Nelson and Crane followed them over..
"One question," Crane began as they watched Morton unfastening the latches. "How many of these things can we expect if they're breeding?"
"Hard to say," Nelson admitted. "I've explained to Fisher that once we've captured as many as we can, we're going to have to sweep the boat to ensure we kill the rest. Sparks can boost the signal to the point where it stops being uncomfortable and starts killing them."
"I hear something moving," Morton commented and he pushed the grid cover up. "Riley, find me something to wedge this, will you?"
"I'll get a screwdriver." Riley bounced back to his toolkit by the trap. "There's definitely something moving in here," Chip said uneasily, peering into the darkness of the vent and wishing they had some lights in. The scrabbling of claws coming towards him seemed to be magnified a thousand times over.
"Chip, I think you should come down," Crane warned sharply, his own unease stirring as he too hear the on coming rush of sound.
"Let me get wedge this vent first, then I'll..." Morton answered then yelled in horror as something hurled itself of the darkness at him. Instinctively throwing up one arm to protect his face, he dropped the grid. His yell turned into a hoarse cry of pain as the spider lobster latched onto his left arm with massively powerful jaws and claws and sent him tumbling backwards from the crates with its solid impact against his chest. He had an impression of dark wave spilling from the vent like an oil slick.
"Chip!" Morton had never heard quite that note of panic in Lee's voice before, but he had no time to comment on it. The spider lobster's seemed intent on making its jaws meet through his bones and he was equally determined to get it off. He pried at it with his free hand, his efforts thwarted as his own blood refused to allow his fingers to grip. His head was spinning and red and black shadows were dancing in his vision as his efforts to get it off weakened. Darkness started to flow in, drawing down thick veils of muffling mercy over his pain filled senses.
Skating on what seemed like a thousand and one Spider Lobsters Crane scrunched his way to Morton's side and grabbed at the creature that had bitten the blond. His friend's eyes were glazing over in shock as Lee prised at the Spider Lobster. Its grip refused to loosen and Crane couldn't get a grip on it for blood.
"Sir!" Practically tap-dancing on Spider Lobsters, Riley scrambled over to them and thrust the screwdriver at Crane. "Use this!"
Snatching the tool off him, Lee stabbed it into the creature, driving it viciously into the joints of its shell. It squirmed in fury, but as the tendons were severed it was forced to let go and finally dropped free. Crane speared it with the screwdriver and flung it aside, then leaned over Morton.
"Chip? Chip? Can you hear me?" There was no answer. Morton was out cold. Gritting his teeth, Crane clamped his hand tightly over the gory mess of Chip's arm and shot a look around him. To his astonishment the Spider Lobsters were staggering around the deck as if drunk, or sinking into inanimate huddles in the corners. Even the ones that had succeeded in reaching the trap were clawing at each other lethargically. There were fewer that he had first thought from the tide that surged out of the vent: maybe fifty or so. Of those, several were considerably larger than when they had been in the laboratory. Certainly the one that had attacked Morton had more than trebled its size.
"Ellis is on his way," Nelson panted as he jogged over from the intercom and bent over them. His trouser legs were ripped and torn from claws. "What happened to them?" Riley asked, in alarm. "Shouldn't we get out of here?"
"We're safe enough. When the first one went straight for Chip, I realised I'd made a mistake. Something built like these things would have to be a predator. I told Sparks to turn up the signal." Nelson glanced round with a dubious scowl. "Seems to have stunned then. Get yourself some help and some heavy gloves and start loading them into the trap, Riley. Sparks will keep the signal running until the decks are clear." As the crewman scooted off to obey, Nelson turned grimly back to Crane and Morton. Lee's hazel green eyes were fixed on Chip's pale face as if terrified to look away. "Lee, relax a little," Harriman urged, putting a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Ellis will be here in a minute. Chip will be fine. Let me take over from you."
Crane blinked and gave him a dazed look as Nelson touched his wrist. His hands were still locked around Morton's forearm and blood was oozing messily through his fingers. "I daren't let go," he said shakily. "I think it tore the artery."
Nelson froze for a second, then nodded. "All right. You hold on to him, while I turn him over," he said calmly. Suiting actions to words, he checked Morton's breathing and pulse, then gently drew him over onto his side into the recovery position, propping him there between them. "He'll be okay," he assured Lee as he noted the haunted expression on the captain's face. "You've come through worse, I'm sure Chip will do the same."
"But it's always been me before," Crane said quietly. "I never thought about it being Chip before."
* * *
There were probably places he should have been, Lee reflected the following, but none of them seemed very important right then. Ellis had spent several hours working on Morton and had assured Crane that the Executive would be fine. Lee couldn't, wouldn't believe that until Chip came out of the anaesthetic and told him so himself and Nelson had practically ordered the captain down to Sickbay while he waited, rather than have Lee driving himself and everyone else on the boat insane with worry. As a result, he had spent all night in Sickbay, occasionally pretending to doze when Ellis came in and glared at him.
"I should probably be on the bridge. Or finishing off that damn paperwork," he told his silent friend as Morton lay still and unnaturally pale in his Sickbay bunk. "But right now, I don't give a damn about it. How come you never told me about how this vigil stuff feels?"
"Because, you wouldn't damn well believe me," Chip's husky voice answered. Cracking open his eyes, he blinked sleepily as Crane. "You talking to yourself?"
"Not if you were listening," Lee retorted. Leaning forward, he put an anxious hand on Chip's good arm. Morton's left was swathed in dressings from fingertips to mid biceps and Lee wasn't about to risk touching it. "How do you feel?"
"Lousy. How'd you expect?" Chip blinked past Crane, staring at the unfamiliar walls of Sickbay. "Don't usually see this place from this angle," he mumbled groggily. "I'll have to remember to get it redecorated."
"Ellis likes it the way it is," Crane assured him.
"Sure, but red wouldn't show the blood," Chip's eyes wandered back to Lee and lingered there, watching his friend struggling to hide his expression of dismay. "Red's traditional," he pointed out. "Nelson's flagship had red decks." He paused, swallowing slowly. "Did I worry you? Heard someone say something about an artery?"
"Trust you to be listening," Lee muttered. "You were lucky. Ellis says you'll be fine, but no arm wrestling."
"Shoot. I use my right for that and how else can I get you to pay for the beer except by beating you?"
"Now, you're hallucinating. You never beat me. I'm going to get Ellis."
"No, Lee, wait," Chip made a feeble grab at the captain's arm and missed. Lee lingered anyway.
"What's the matter?"
Chip licked dry lips. "The spider lobsters? I, I was having a nightmare about them."
"Well, don't. We've cleared them all out. Nelson's been running periodic signal sweeps all night. It seems to have killed all the small ones, but the four big ones that are left are on ice. Literally. Fisher stuck them in the galley freezer. He thinks they've gone back into hibernation. They gorged on our food supplies. That's why they grew so big, so fast."
"Oh, great. So what's he going to do, thaw them out at NIMR?"
"Personally, I'm rooting for dissection," Lee growled, startling the blond.
"Since one of them took a large chunk out of you. You scared me, damn it!"
Chip blinked in astonishment. "Well, excuse me," he exclaimed.
Lee glared at him indignantly for a second, then slumped. "Hell, I didn't mean that the way it sounded."
"I know exactly what you meant," Chip assured him however. "Heck, I've yelled at you enough times. Mind you, that was usually because you'd got hurt pulling some dumb stunt."
"I seem to recall you pulling few of your own."
"Ah, but I always walked away unscathed." Chip gazed at his friend for a moment, then smiled faintly. "I'll be fine, Lee. Back on the bridge before you know it."
"You'd better be. I can't terrorise the crew the way you do," Lee answered. "Between Nelson and Beach, I'll be going crazy before long."
Chip gave him a beatific smile. "Now, you know how I feel. I have you to cope with as well."
Crane gazed at him soberly, reflecting that he now knew exactly how Chip felt when he was hurt. It wasn't a feeling he enjoyed and resolved that he would do his best to make sure Chip didn't have to go through it again either. "Yeah, well, you get some rest and I'll tell Ellis you're awake."
"Okay, okay." Chip settled down, dubiously eyeing his arm for a moment before turning his head to gaze at Crane as he hovered over him. "Do you think we can persuade Fisher to part with one of those things? I'd kill for a lobster dinner right now!"