By Sally & Pauline
A Big thank you to Helen without who’s help, this story may never have been finished.
Lee Crane crouched down, huddled beneath the dense canopy of a thicket of trees. His ripped and muddied Dress Blues had provided little protection from the force of the freezing rain and he was drenched to the skin. He trembled uncontrollably as he rested against the dead tree, trying to find a more comfortable position for his battered body. The carrier Forrestal had been tracking a storm moving down the coast, which was now apparently coming inland. It was just his luck that the country was experiencing the coldest weather on record.
Hunching forward slightly he reached in under the wet, torn clothing and, with his right hand, clutched at the pulsing pain which snaked its way across his stomach. Drawing his hand away, he looked down, focusing feebly on his blood-drenched palm. And he had sustained enough injuries, in his time, to know that he was bleeding badly. Knowing that he had absolute no means of stemming the flow he felt a sudden surge of panic rising from somewhere deep inside. He concentrated his weakening efforts on forcing it away, trying to bring his rapid, shallow breathing under control. He needed to think straight and find the inner strength to get up and keep moving.
He relived the moment that he'd caught himself on barbed wire as he'd scrambled over the top of a six foot high wall. Trapped mercilessly by its claws and with bullets hitting the wall precariously close to him, he'd had no option other than to make a run for it towards the cover of the trees, ripping the skin open across his left side and stomach in the process. Fear and adrenaline were all that had kept him on his feet as he'd made that mad dash for freedom. How he'd managed to stay upright and running for the past hour he would never know. His thoughts were just a murky blur as he'd physically pushed himself on, thanking God for his fitness and drawing on the inner reserve of strength and stamina that always served him so well.
The bitter icy rain had continued to fall, drenching his dark curls and streaming down his back. Clutching his arm in close across his stomach in an attempt to stem the flow of blood, he leaned weakly back against the tree. Closing his eyes tightly for a moment and biting back the clawing pain, his thoughts, fuzzy and muddled with the cold and blood loss, drifted back to the events that had brought him here.
He had been on a mission for ONI. A mission that had gone terribly wrong. A mission where he had been expected to negotiate the release of an innocent man. He’d had company along; a full four-star admiral, and a ‘friendly,’ a man from the local village, their guide to the compound where los leales were holding their prisoner. What had become of the young man or the others, Lee had no idea. Everything had gone much to plan until the jeep they were travelling in had been hijacked and forced off a dirt track on the way to the compound. Lee had been separated from his travelling companions, placed in a cell and subsequently cruelly questioned until he’d managed to overpower his guards and escape via the perimeter wall. There had been no opportunity to rescue any of his team; he’d barely escaped with his life.
Although in a good deal of pain Lee couldn't help but smile slightly as he remembered his meeting just 24 hours ago with Admiral Nelson, in his cabin aboard Seaview. They were both happy and relaxed after a particularly tiring but successful mapping mission, and were sharing a rare joke together, laughing heartily and looking forward to the trip home.
Then the call had come through for the admiral from ONI.
The Admiral's ruddy complexion had quickly paled as he listened for no more than a minute and then quietly replaced the receiver of the telephone. In silence he'd poured an over-large measure of whisky into a nearby crystal tumbler and gulped the warm comforting liquid straight down in one swallow. His sparkling, expressive sea blue eyes clouded over and dulled to grey and, as Lee sat studiously watching him, with one hip familiarly perched on the corner of the admiral's desk, he saw the tension spread across his boss' rugged features to settle firmly in his now hunched shoulders.
Lee hadn't needed to ask. He'd been there before. He knew from the sudden change in Nelson's demeanour and body language as to who had been on the other end of the line. He watched Nelson physically sag and sink down into his large black, buttoned leather chair. An air of resignation settling across his lined features.
"Sir?" Lee softly questioned, his dark hazel eyes never leaving Nelson's worried gaze.
"Head of ONI," Nelson had quietly growled, not attempting to disguise his disgust as he slowly and deliberately ground out each of the words. "They want me to release you for just a few days," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, "so you can go off to some godforsaken place and do them a small favor."
"And?" Lee inquired, feeling his heart rate suddenly quicken with anticipation.
"And Lee," Nelson almost whispered huskily, "I don't have to like it. Even if the reason is sound."
For the next few seconds, Lee sat in awkward silence, carefully contemplating his next words, not wishing to rile the Admiral any further. He knew that the Admiral and Chip strongly disapproved of his little 'jaunts’ into the secret world of ONI. He also knew that it stemmed from their care for him, even from their love for him. He rarely came back to them without some injury or illness, whether it be physical or physcological. He knew that they worried about him while he was away, but his loyalty and sense of duty to his country and his uniform far outweighed the hurt that he knew he bestowed upon them.
"When do I leave?" he asked, deciding to ignore the emotional issues involved and get down to business.
"As soon as we can get FS-1 ready. You and Kowalski can take the flying sub to 200 miles off the coast of El Salvador, where you will land on the Forrestal for a meeting with Admiral Bruce Walters and be briefed before flying in-country. He's going to call you shortly to sort out some of the finer details." He paused to pour himself another large whisky from the bottle and continued. "It seems that one of our aid workers has been kidnapped and imprisoned somewhere close to the border and they want you to go down there and negotiate his release as soon as possible."
“Why me?" Lee queried. "Surely any one of our high ranking government officials should be going, not me. I'm not the best trained person in the world at negotiating the release of prisoners with hostile groups. I’ve found it’s often easier to go in with guns blazing."
His attempt at humor fell flat. Nelson’s eyes didn’t change as he reached forward and withdrew a cigarette from the box which was lying on his desk. He lit it, inhaling deeply as he leaned back heavily in his chair and considered Lee's last statement.
"Admiral Walters has asked for your services personally, because, as you know, he's familiar with your track record in the field and also... there is a personal agenda here, Lee," he said, pausing uncomfortably. "Bruce will be going with you. The prisoner is his son, Bradley."
A long, low whistle forced itself through Lee's pursed lips.
"Yes, exactly," Nelson continued. "Apparently he was down there working voluntarily, clearing up after the recent earthquake, when he was taken by a local, let’s say, quasi-military group. They're asking for a ransom to be paid, no doubt to buy arms."
"Well that's different, sir. I'll get ready immediately."
And with that Lee Crane had risen from his usual perched position, turned his back on the Admiral and headed for the cabin door.
"Good luck Lee," Nelson quietly added before Lee had disappeared from his view and out into the corridor. "And take care."
Lee paused momentarily with his hand placed casually on the edge of the open door. He turned his golden eyes to meet the Admiral's intense gaze, sent him one of his trademark dazzling smiles, winked and replied confidently, "Will do sir," and was gone.
Admiral Nelson scowled at the radio message Sparks had just handed him, and swore silently. He left the radio shack to join Chip Morton at the plot table.
“Mr. Morton, Captain Crane and his party did not make the rendezvous. Lay in a course for these coordinates, all ahead flank,” he ordered.
“Aye aye, sir,” Morton acknowledged as he turned his attention to the charts on the table in front of him.
Once again Nelson marvelled at the complete attention to duty the men on Seaview exhibited. He had seen the questions in Chip’s eyes, the unspoken alarm and concern for his friend, but right now he needed to concentrate on putting together a search party. “Chief, assemble a search party and have the flying sub checked out. I want it ready to launch as soon as possible.”
Nelson watched as the control room became a hive of activity. Two technicians hurried forward and opened the access hatch to FS1, then quickly disappeared inside. Chief Sharkey began rounded up a search party, immediately pulling Kowalski from his Sonar station, while Patterson took his place and Riley replaced him in turn.
“Proceeding on course at flank,” Morton reported.
Nelson nodded. “Who is our best combat trained Corpsman?”
Morton thought for a moment before answering. “That would be Russell, he’s ex-Special Forces. Do you think that Lee is in trouble, sir?”
“I wish I knew, Chip.” Digging into his pants pocket, Nelson took out the key to the arms locker and walked over to open it. “Chief,” Nelson called to Sharkey.
“Make sure all the men are armed, and have Corpsman Russell join us.” Nelson began handing out handguns to Sharkey. “We’ll need radios and medical supplies. Have everything loaded aboard the flying sub.”
Aye, sir.” Sharkey gestured at the men gathered around him. “You heard the Admiral, get busy.”
Turning, Nelson found his way to the hatch blocked by the executive officer.
“Admiral Nelson, request permission to take your place on FS-1, sir.”
The automatic denial died on Nelson’s lips. Next to himself, no one cared more for Lee Crane than this man standing in front of him, standing stiffly at attention, blue eyes fixed on a spot over Nelson’s head. “Your rationale, Commander?”
“You’re needed here to command and control anything we’ll need to know once we get there, sir.”
As much as he wanted to be the first one to greet Lee when they found him -- and they would find him -- Nelson knew he couldn’t argue with Chip’s reasoning. It would be better for him to stay behind and coordinate the rescue efforts. And, although he wouldn’t tell Morton this, he’d seen the weather reports; this was a younger man’s quest.
“It’s been a while since I was asked to find Lee Crane, Admiral. I need the practice.”
“Quite right, Mr. Morton. Permission granted. Carry on.”
“Thank you, sir!”
Hunching forward, Lee clamped his hand hard against his stomach in an attempt to keep the wound closed and slow the bleeding. He sat with his head resting on his knees before gritting his teeth and forcing himself painfully into an upright position, leaning with his back against the tree for invaluable support. He felt dizzy and sick as he straightened and found his feet beneath him. He knew he had to get going again. He hoped in his heart that Admiral Nelson, his boss and more importantly his friend would come looking for him when no one appeared at the pre-arranged rendezvous. He also knew that his captors were not far behind. Either way, if he did not get medical help soon, it would not matter who found him.
Giving himself a mental shake, he forced himself to move. The usually sun baked earth had turned to mud, unable to absorb the sheer amount of water that the storm was depositing. The noise of the rain made it impossible to tell if anyone was following him. There were also predators in this region that hunted at night; jaguars and mountain lions, even alligators were all indigenous to the area. Without a weapon he was no threat at all.
He looked at his watch, but it was too dark to see clearly. He wondered how long he had until it started to get light. He needed to be well away from the compound before daybreak. As he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, Lee could feel his strength slowly draining. He needed to replace the fluid he was losing from his injury, but despite the rain, there was no water fit to drink. Underfoot, conditions were deteriorating rapidly as the potholes in the road were filling with water, and it was almost impossible to see them in the dark. Lee stumbled, almost going to his knees and pain lanced through him. He was afraid that he was going to pass out, he needed to rest, but he could not stop yet, not until he’d put more distance between himself and the compound. Even now, he wished that he had been able to do more to help the rest of his party.
Looking back, things had happened fast. Their jeep had been forced off the road and had ended up on its side in a ditch. The impact had stunned Lee and when he had regained his senses, he’d found a gun pointed at his head. He’d briefly considered tackling the man, but he was out gunned and outnumbered. Any attempt at resistance could have resulted in all their deaths. Hauled roughly to his feet, his hands had been tied behind his back and Lee had been forced roughly into the back on a pickup. That had been the last he’d seen of Admiral Walters and the rest of his party. Was Admiral Walters still alive, or had he been killed along with his son? There was no room left for diplomacy now. If anyone had survived, the only way to get them out would be a full scale assault on the compound. There was a distinctive glow on the horizon that signalled the arrival of dawn that told him he had to keep moving.
Morton landed the flying sub in a lake that was separated from the sea by a thin strip of sand that was probably underwater at high tide. The lake was just deep enough to hide FS-1 from anyone that should come this way. The team quickly changed into scuba gear and packed their supplies into waterproof bags before leaving the sub to swim ashore. The pounding rain convinced them that changing intro dry clothes would be a waste of time. The scuba gear stayed on.
They consulted the maps and compasses before starting out. In normal conditions the way would have been easy, the rendezvous point only about a half mile from shore. Instead a quagmire of mud and uprooted trees essentially hid the small trail from view. Using the powerful infrared torch, Morton took the lead. The beam, invisible to the human eye, illuminated the surrounding vegetation and turned it into a magical secret world. They did not, however, have time to appreciate the wonders of modern science, they needed to find Lee.
It would be daylight soon, and while that would make things easier for them, it would also make it easy for anyone that might be looking for them. The fact that Lee was overdue almost certainly meant that something had gone wrong, and there was a possibility that an unfriendly greeting was waiting just ahead. More of a concern was what had happened to Lee. Morton knew that he should not let his feelings get in the way, but he was getting tired of the strain that Lee’s continuing work for ONI was putting not just on him, but on Admiral Nelson and everyone involved.
“This way,” Morton ordered as he started walking.
The incessant rain had given way to warm sun. Lee was exhausted, hungry and thirsty. He eased out of his jacket to let the sun dry his sodden shirt; the left side was soaked with blood, but the gashes had stopped bleeding. He knew that he was already dehydrated from the blood loss. At least the warmth of the sun seeping through his wet clothes made him feel a little better.
Pausing for a moment, he looked around him. How far had he come? He would have to find somewhere to rest before the sun reached the zenith. Then he spotted the thin column of smoke rising from somewhere ahead.
Moving as quietly as he could, he headed in the direction of the smoke. Was this friend or enemy? He hoped it was friendlies, he knew that he would not be able to keep going much longer. He moved into the lush green vegetation careful to avoid the sharp tipped leaves of succulent plants that grew in abundance here. The smoke was still there, now tantalizingly close. Every step hurt and he guessed that the wound was becoming infected. Throwing caution aside, he half stumbled as he tried to walk faster. He could feel the uneven beat of his heart as it laboured in his chest, then something happened to his legs and he crumpled to the ground and everything went black.
Lee awoke to find himself under the shade of a wooden structure with a thatched roof. The sides were open and a cool breeze blew across his naked chest. For a moment he thought he must be dreaming, then as he tried to sit up, pain hit him, causing him to yell out and collapse back, his hand clamped to his injured side. Damn, it hurt! His torso was bandaged and his damaged hand was also swathed in bandages. He gave up any attempt to move for the moment but instead, turned his head to try and see where he was. Not in a cell as least. He was lying on a straw mat, covered by a thin blanket. He could smell and hear the ocean. What appeared to be an indigenous woman wearing an embroidered blouse and long, full skirt approached, smiling broadly.
“Sentarse quieto, señor, o se le comienzan a sangrar de nuevo.”
“Okay, I’ve got this,” Lee said to himself. His Spanish was rusty but serviceable. “Sit still or I’ll start bleeding again. Sounds like a plan to me.”
She knelt down beside him and helped him sit up. Reaching back, she picked up an earthen bowl and handed it to him. “Come esto y reponer usted mismo.”
Lee nodded his thanks and accepted the bowl. Whatever it was, it smelled good and he took a spoonful. Chicken soup. Even here he got chicken soup.
“No habla Ingles?” he asked. He needed to contact Seaview and let them know that he was sort of okay. Lee pointed to himself. “Americano.”
Shaking her head, the woman moved to the edge of the mat and began to draw something in the sand. Lee carefully positioned himself so that he could see what she was drawing. For a moment he looked at the circular shape in the sand. No, it couldn’t be – could it?
The woman pointed towards the sky. “Yo he visto pájaro amarillo grande.”
Big... yellow... bird. The flying sub! It had to be! Clutching his side, he tried to get to his feet, but the woman shook her head and pushed him back.
“No, no, señor. Mi marido ha ido a buscar tus amigos.”
The message was clear enough. Her husband was searching for his friends, and she did not want him moving in the meantime.
The woman nodded, then picked up the empty bowl and left.
He lay back, hope rising inside for the first time. If the flying sub was here, then his friends were looking for him. Lee grabbed a nearby cushion and shoved it behind him so that he could see. There were some small boats along the shore, and fishing nets were laid out to dry on the beach. There were wood and thatch huts, and a larger structure made of corrugated iron. Maybe a mine, he speculated. There was extensive gold and silver mining throughout the region, although most of the mines were abandoned now. He watched as the woman disappeared into one of the huts and returned with a roughly woven white cotton shirt and his jacket. She had obviously deemed his shirt beyond saving.
“Tienes suerte de venir aquí. No estamos de acuerdo con los leales,” she said as she helped him sit up and pull on the shirt.
He nodded agreement, stunned at his suerte, his luck. He had managed to stumble into an encampment friendly to the government, not los leales, the ‘loyalists,’ as the opposition called themselves. If only he had a radio! To be so near to rescue and be unable to tell them where he was, but of course he had lost all his equipment when he’d made his escape from the compound.
His head had started to ache again. He didn’t wait for her to tell him to rest this time. He fall back on the mat, exhausted.
“Señor, por favor, despierta, despierta!”
Lee’s eyes flew open. He didn’t have to be told a third time to wake up. Besides, the sounds of something crashing through the bushes would have been enough to wake anyone. He tensed. Resigned, he hoped at least that they wouldn’t do anything to the woman. There was nothing he could do to help himself.
“Estrella, ver lo que he encontrado!”
The first to emerge was a small man, grinning broadly as he waved his palm-leaved hat back and forth in the air. Behind him, their black scuba gear in sharp contrast to his white shirt and white pants, stepped Chip Morton and Chief Sharkey.
Morton broke into a run, the sand flapping behind his shoes as he covered the twenty or so yards in a hurry.
Lee looked up, squinting into the sun. “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
“Lee, am I glad to see you.” Chip dropped to his knees beside him.
“It’s good to see you to. What took you so long?” Lee joked, smiling.
“Excuse me, Sirs.” The Corpsman knelt on Lee’s other side. “How bad, Skipper?”
“Bad enough,” Lee carefully lifted the short to relieve the bloody bandage around his middle.
“I don’t want to mess with that so I’ll put a pressure bandage on top of it and we’ll get you back to Seaview.”
“Chief, contact the Flying Sub,” Chip ordered.
Admiral Nelson hovered anxiously by the flying sub access hatch for FS-1 to dock, worrying about what Lee had done to himself this time. Also waiting was Seaview’s CMO, Will Jamieson, with a corpsman and stretcher, ready to whisk Lee to sickbay the moment that the hatch opened. They had been told he had lost a lot of blood, but the native woman had done a wonderful job of dressing Lee’s wound. He would find some way to reward them.
“Have you heard anything else about Admiral Walters and his son, Admiral?”
Nelson startled, turned to the doctor. “What? Oh, sorry, Will. Yes, I understand they were being held in a different place from the compound Lee was taken to. The government forces raided that this morning. Seems everyone in the place was so drunk on whiskey they’d stolen from some local bigwig that there was no resistance. Bruce and his son are fine, shaken up, obviously, but alive.”
“So probably Lee didn’t need to go in at all.”
That brought Nelson up short. “It’s possible.. No one could have known in advance, of course, but a little simple Intel might have come in handy. But I don’t think Bruce was thinking about that when he asked for help. It was his son they were going in to rescue, remember. He needed the best man available.”
“FS-1 is reporting they are five minutes out, sir.”
“Thank you, Sparks. Won’t be long now, Will.”
Dr. Jamieson rested a hand on Nelson’s shoulder. “And we know who the best man is, don’t we, Admiral?”
Nelson groped for the handkerchief in his pocket... something was in his eye. “Yes, Doctor, we do.”
“Is he going to be all right, Will?” Nelson asked as weary looking Jamieson entered his cabin.
Jamieson walked over to the desk and dropped into a chair. “Yes. I’ve done all I can for him, but the wound was messy. We’ll see how well it heals, but there will be a lot of scaring. In my opinion he is going to need plastic surgery.”
“Does he know?”
Jamieson shook his head. “He’s still groggy from the surgery; I’ll wait until he’s a little more coherent before I talk to him about it.”
“What about other injuries?” Nelson worried, he’d been shaken when he’d first seen Lee. It was nothing short of a miracle that Lee had survived at all.
Jamieson took a deep breath. “He was very lucky, the injuries to his hands are not serious, I don’t think that there will be any permanent nerve damage. But there is the danger of infection. The wound was left untreated a long time and there is also the danger of adhesions.”
“Can I see him?”
Jamieson nodded and smiled. “Could I stop you?” He teased. “But he probably will not be awake.”
“I understand, I just want to see him.” He needed to get the last image of Lee out of his head.
Lee was lying in a lower bunk, plasma and antibiotic IVs hanging from a pole beside the bunk. Nelson glanced at Jamieson before moving closer. “Lee, can you hear me?”
Lee’s eyes fluttered open, clouded by the drugs. “Ad –miral.”
“Easy, lad,” Nelson laid a hand on Lee’s shoulder. “Everything is all right.. Just rest.”
“Shhh.” Nelson interrupted. “Everyone is safe. Admiral Walters and his son are aboard the carrier. We’ll talk later, go back to sleep now.”
Lee gave a small nod and closed his eyes. “Home,” he whispered softly.
Nelson chuckled. “Yes, Lee – you’re home.” And if I have my way, you’ll be staying right here in future. “Rest easy, son.” It may take time for Lee to heal, but he was back where he belonged and that was all that mattered for now. Straightening, he stood watching Lee, reluctant to leave.
“Admiral,” Jamieson moved to stand beside him. “Lee needs to rest.”
“Take care of him, Will,” Nelson half-heartedly turned to leave. Lee wasn’t the only one that needed rest. It had been a long night for everyone, but Nelson could not allow himself to relax until he knew that Lee was going to be all right.
“You know I will, Admiral.” Jamieson gently steered his superior towards the door. “I’ll call you when he is awake enough for visitors.”
“Thanks, Will.” Nelson left sickbay, headed for the control room. He’d chase Chip Morton out and then head for his own cabin and some much needed sleep. The real battle would begin when Lee woke up and wanted out of sickbay.