Ensigns of Command

By

Carol Foss

Dedicated to Sandra Turney

(Pre-Prequel to the Secret Agent Man series)

('Ensign'-flag, pennant, or banner; 'Ensign'-lowest rank of regular Commissioned Officers US Navy, US Coast Guard)

 

"I'm sorry Captain Nelson, but there just isn't anyone available, even temporarily," the duty clerk at the Personnel Office said as she hurried some reports along.

"I've been making these blasted requests for help over a month and I'm getting sick and tired of my boat being bypassed and overlooked where our manpower is concerned, especially when I'm so shorthanded on officers!"

"As we've tried to explain again, sir, they're all otherwise assigned or simply unavailable. I'll file this latest request of yours of course, but do you have to have a line officer? "

"A desk jockey is absolutely worthless on a submarine! You should know that..."

"Is there a problem here?" Admiral Simmons interrupted from the doorway, handing a briefcase to the aide behind him. The Ensign made himself busy with some additional files the Chief handed him and was itching to find out if maybe, just maybe this time...

"At last, someone who knows what he's doing," Nelson was saying to the Admiral, "Perhaps you can explain to her that a submarine is a highly sophisticated piece of machinery! I...I'm sorry. No doubt you were only trying to be helpful, Chief."

"That's okay sir."

"No, no it's not. Iím a naval officer and I was disrespectful. It won't happen again. I guess all this time being over extended is beginning to tell."

"Your's isn't the only sub without a full compliment these days," Simmons said, leading Nelson into the adjoining office and closed the door.

 

"Harry," the Admiral was saying as he sat down at his desk, "I'm afraid you're just going to have to do without. We know there's bound to be the occasional equipment failure in a boat her age. Of course your crew will grumble and request transfers when she continually has to abort or postpone a patrol for repairs. However," he said holding up some forms, "some of the transfers and one actual resignation that went through last month seemed to be a reflection more on your command abilities or lack thereof."

"What?"

"You want it straight Harry?"

"Of course I do!"

"Frankly, you're not exactly presenting the image and demeanor of what the Navy expects of its sub captains anymore."

"My image?" Nelson almost snorted in derision.

"Oh, you can drive a boat. That's not in question. But to be blunt, the brass is starting to wonder if you even want a command. More than one source confirms that you seem to have lost heart over the last few years. Too many outside interests perhaps? It's as if your boats have become nothing but a distraction to all your little private experiments, inventions, and articles...."

"I'm a good skipper. My fit reps..."

"They've gone from good to adequate. There's a difference. Nobody has misgivings about your genius in other areas, but you simply haven't lived up to your potential on a boat."

"And thatís why I don't get the manpower I need?"

"No. You don't get your manpower because there isn't anyone. Now, I've decided to beach the boat while an inspection team looks her over. If she can get by on some simple repairs, you can finish out this patrol, but I have to tell you that your career as a sub commander is in effect, over unless you make a concerted effort to change for the better. "

"I see."

"Just telling it like it is. You can still have a long and prosperous career in our research departments."

For a moment Nelson just stared out the window.

"That's all Harry. Dismissed."

***

Joe hesitated, wondering if this was such a good idea after all, but in the end he boarded the rather derelict Vagabond bouncing in her assigned slip and climbed down the ill lit steps of the antiquated sailboat, tripping over Crane's haphazardly discarded mud caked boots just out of sight near the base. "Lee!? Damnit, Lee!" he shouted, unable to withhold his irritation as he hopped about on one foot and off balance fell to the deck. Pulling himself off the buckled and half sanded decking, getting a few splinters in his hands for his trouble he was wondering if he'd got it wrong. Lee was back from assignment wasn't he?

Jackson had been loud enough for the odd sunbather atop Vagabond's neighbors to have heard his yelp, but not even a peep was forthcoming from behind the cabin door, which was half unhinged, and rotting away. Or maybe Lee had returned to the apartment they shared...but surely Joe would have noticed as he'd gotten ready for work.

Or maybe Crane had simply gone to his favorite isolated beachfront for a little cool down time...still, Lee being Lee, his friend would never let Joe hear the end of it if he didn't at least try to find him andinform him of a possible, if doubtful loan out. Of course both he and Lee would be in for a severe tongue lashing from Admiral Cartwright's lethal tongue if Crane decided to try to opt for it.

 

As he peered into the less than tidy cabin, still cluttered with the previous owner's dusty and rusty accoutrements, it appeared that Lee had probably only just managed to climb aboard and had hit the bed face down in an ungainly heap, if being fully clothed in his now stiffening mud stained fatigues meant anything.

"C'mon Lee. Wakey, wakey!" Jackson said to the non responsive man who only snuggled down deeper into the moth-eaten bedspread. Spotting a molding half empty can of beans, Lee's no doubt before he'd been sent out, Jackson pulled out the spoon and banged it loudly against the resonant can. Joe had learned early on not to grab or alert any part of his friend's anatomy while he was in the arms of Morpheus unless he wanted to risk bodily harm from Crane's rather violent and well trained reflex actions.

"C'mon sleepyhead," Joe continued, "wake up!! I'm on my lunch break...I found you a boat!"

"Mmff?"

"I said I found you a boat!" Joe practically shouted.

"Huh..wha..." Lee turned toward the sound, and squinted at his friend. "What's the big idea?" he yawned, "I had the night shift..."he said still groggy with exhaustion and sleep and about to return to his slumbers.

"Oh swell, that's just great! Anything else I need to be aware of?" Joe asked trying to pull Lee upright, taking in Crane's swollen eye, a cut above his eyebrow and a bruise on the opposite side of his face which was joined by others on his neck leading downward to hide under his odiferous shirt.

"Is the coffee ready?.."Lee was yawning.

"Lee, are you listening to me? C'mon, focus! I found you a boat! A boat that's just so desperate for some help, Cartwright's bound to be swayed this time."

"Huh? Wha...For real Joe?" Lee's head finally began to clear.

"He'll be just as adamant against it as always...but, it's worth a shot.. if you're interested that is."

"Of course I am!" Lee hitched his legs over the side of the less than comfortable bed and winced from the effort, but at least Joe could tell he was more fully aware now. "So tell me, what is she? Remember, flattops make me sick but I'd still..."

Joe shook his head, and checked Lee's eyes for signs of a concussion. "Boat, Lee, boat, not 'Ship'. An old sub but she's still in service, that is if the inspection team gives her the go ahead to put back to sea..."

"Joe, you are one in a million..."

"You don't have the orders yet. So get a move on, there's no telling how long it will take to talk Cartwright into it, and then there's all the paperwork to get done...and do something about that shiner! So...how'd it go? You look like a hundred miles of bad road. Have you been debriefed yet? And a med check?"

"I reported a mission accomplished. I left some of those other little details for later."

"One of these days.... we'll go to the Medical Center after you've cleaned up. There's no way Cartwright's going to approve this request if there's anything to disqualify you as fit for duty..."

"Never bothered him before."

"Only if it wasn't a boat...they have rules Lee."

"Joe? Are you sure you don't want to go instead? After all, you're the one found the opening..."

"I was in the right place at the right time to hear the boat's skipper complaining to Simmons, that's all. You know Lee, Cartwright's probably right about you being better placed with the Agency than ever being a bubblehead no matter what you think. Even the SecNav was impressed with the way you handled the assignment before last. Everyone at the Agency says if it weren't a covert operation, there'd have been a medal in it for you."

"Medal, schmedle, I just want get back on a boat."

"Lee, I know your heart's out there; mine was too...but...."

"But," Lee sighed," we go where we're told and do what we're ordered. But I'm telling you Joe, come hell or high water, somehow, some way..."

"I know I know, you're going to become the 'best damn sub captain in the fleet'," he laughed. Well then, c'mon Skipper, hurry up. I have to get back to the office. I'm pulling double duty with Cartwright and Simmons... "

"See you in about a half hour. Cold shower should wake me up enough. Not that I wouldn't want a hot one."

"Water heater still broken?"

"Just about everything on my best girl here...but you wait, she's going to be a real beauty when I'm finished with her."

"Yeah, yeah...heard it all before Lee...now, get a move on!"

"Aye aye sir!" Lee tossed him a grin as he finished climbing out of his stiffening clothes.
"Uh uh, you outrank me by four points."

"I'll never outrank you Joe. You're the best friend anyone could ever ask for."

"Thanks...I'll hold you to that."

***

Damn the boy! Admiral Cartwright was still fuming. Crane's 'reminding' him of the Agency's unwritten agreement to let him put in some sub time had really irked him. Well, the upstart would change his mind soon enough. At least, Nautilus was not the class of subs Crane had trained or served on.In fact, he'd probably wish he were back on assignment with the Agency before they'd been underway a couple of days, if the fates actually allowed him to succeed in his 'mission'. Yes, then he'd forget his adlepated dreams and concentrate on Agency business. Maybe even take on a few assignments with the allies. MI 5 had already requested Crane by name...at this rate the kid might be an Admiral before Cartwright retired..

***

"You know Lee," Joe mused dockside, as he took in some of the exterior repairs of the Nautilus, "There's still time to back out."

"No way. Besides, I don't care if I have to get out and push! Joe, I really can't thank you enough for all your help..."

"Purely an ulterior motive," he pulled Crane's duffle out of the Volkswagen, "It'll give me a break, at least this time I can expect you to come back unscathed! I can't guarantee the boat however," he laughed as Crane joined in striding up the gangplank.

***

"I'm sorry Ensign Crane," Commander Bob Wyatt was saying below, as he gave the repaired periscope housing a nod of approval to Chief Downey, "There's been a mistake. We requested line officers, not a file clerk."

"Oh I'm not a file clerk. It's just a quirk I'm not on a boat right now. I aced Sub School and served with distinction aboard the..."

"Submariners who serve with distinction don't usually end up pulling extended shore duty. What was it, some kind of punishment tour? You a troublemaker Crane?"

"Oh, you mean how I got the shiner and the bruises? I got these on a camping trip sir."

"Uh huh.. Look, for the sake of argument, I'll check this out with the Skipper. I still think it's a mistake, for now, you might as well return to this Office 51, whatever it does, and polish the file cabinets."

"With all due respect sir, my orders were approved by Admiral Cartwright..."

"I don't care who the hell approved it, it's got to be an oversight. Admirals almost never look that closely at a Jr. Officer's papers. That's what their staff's for. I told you I'd have the Captain look into it."

"Yes sir, when can I expect that sir?"

"Whenever I tell him, that soon enough Crane?"

"Aye sir," Lee said appropriately chastised which seemed to satisfy Wyatt. For a moment anyway before Crane continued, "I wouldn't trust that periscope housing if I were you. Looks like a series 87A coupling and...."

"I know that Ensign! If you were a line officer as you profess, you'd know that series 87A is compatible with this design. Cheech. Not only a troublemaker but a know- it- all as well..."

"I'm sorry if I come across that way sir, but..."

"Will you get off my boat reasonable like or do I have the master at arms escort you?"

"That won't be necessary. It's okay Chief, I'll take it," Crane took the proffered duffle up the ladder himself.

Downey followed him at Wyatt's nod and couldn't help but overhear the Ensign's "It'll crack before it's been used ten times..." as he shook his head, then straightened up, saluted the colors and went ashore, his friend still waiting, and not altogether surprised at Crane's negative shake of the head.

***

"I wouldn't worry about it Harry," Captain Jiggs Starke said as the two were grabbing a bite at their favored bayside restaurant. "Probably somebody just making waves...you're a fine sub skipper."

"Am I? I have to tell you, I'm not so sure anymore. Simmons is right...half the time I really would rather be studying some new specimen..."

"Well, you're still an asset to the Navy. And the world too. Nobel Prize in the offing or am I mistaken?"

Nelson's grin was unmistakable.

***

"It was all I could do to keep from blowing my cover," Lee said, as he and Jackson were putting Vagabond through her paces. "Joe, I just have to get aboard! It's my last chance. I'll never get my dolphins if I'm constantly pigeonholed as an agent."

"Seems to me you already have them," he joked, indicated the trio of dolphins riding Vagabond's bow wave. "Hey, look at that yacht there...wow, what do you think she's worth, a couple million? Full time crew, uniforms and all."

"I donít know about their uniforms, but I sure like what their friends are wearing," Lee said as he grabbed the binoculars hanging on Joe's neck to take a better look at the bikini clad girls lounging on the sun deck.

***

"Good heavens," Starke took in the view from one of the restaurant's picture windows, "that is a sailboat isn't it?"

"That eyesore's the Vagabond," the waitress saw what he was pointing at, "it belonged to Douglas Fairbanks, Senior at one time."

"She seems to handle well enough," Nelson said adding a grin when the boys in command of the ketch also seemed to be doing pretty well luring the sunbathing beauties on the yacht to transfer their mode of transportation.

***^***

"Anything else on him, Bob?" Nelson checked Crane's orders the next day as the sub took on the last of her supplies.

"Only what he bragged about."

"You really got a bad taste in your mouth about him didn't you?"

"He's arrogant, something shady about him, I'm certain of it, that's what Lee Crane is, sir."

"There's something else he is Mr. Wyatt," Chief Downey approached handing the XO the stores manifest.

"What's that Chief?" Nelson asked.

"The extra manpower we really really really could use sir."

Both Nelson and the Chief laughed not quite noticing Wyatt frowning at the manifest.

"Chief? We've been sent periscope housing."

"Yes sir. They must've found us the one we really wanted someplace, how about that..."

"Yeah," the XO said, like a rock, "How about that...Skipper, Crane's overstepped himself."

"You can't blame him for this?"

"Perhaps not, but it's rather convenient, don't you think?" Wyatt sneered.

"Give us a moment will you Chief?" Nelson ordered and waited for the man to get out of earshot.

"Bob, don't you think you're letting your imagination get away from you? He'd hardly have the clearance to put in a requisition let alone without authorization. Procurement's just on the job, that's all."

"I guess you're right; it's just this punk kid thinks he's such hot stuff..."

"We thought we were hot stuff back in our day too, don't forget," Nelson laughed, "If the boy has sub experience, any sub experience, we could still use him, staffer or not. And you can stow the grimace. It would only be temporary anyway...but just to humor you, let's see what Personnel has on him."

***

"We're sorry to bother you Admiral," Wyatt said, "but the duty clerk couldnít find anything on an Ensign Crane even with his service number; and there's no copy of his orders on file. At first we thought it must be a filing mistake or somebody transposed the numbers..but nobody here's even heard of an Office 51...."

"Office 51??"

"So you can see how he could be a terrorist and..."

"Oh, there's an Office 51, trust me. Look, Commander, Harry, sometimes affiliate branches get lost in the shuffle. It's best you just to accept this Crane to your boat, no questions asked. And it's not as if you have much choice in the matter, line or staff officer. Orders are orders."

"Begging your pardon sir," Wyatt said, "The captain still reserves the right toknow a little something about the men he's responsible for."

"The Captain will follow orders, same as you and this Crane. He's probably not all too pleased having to report to such an old boat as the Nautilus himself, even if it is a temporary assignment. Anything else Commander? Captain?"

"So where do I find his office? We'll need some way to contact him."

"Why? What did you do?"

"I sent him away," Wyatt said, "it seemed like a good idea at the time. I told him I'd have the Skipper check out his orders."

"Well, I wouldn't worry about it. No doubt he'll show up when you're ready to sail."

"We'd still like to meet him," Nelson said firmly. "And even we didn't know when we'd be shoving off until your office told us a few minutes ago. By the way thank you for seeing to that new periscope housing sir."

"Don't thank me; I had nothing to do with any periscope housing. Procurement's just probably doing its job. As for Crane, I for one am not going to disturb Admiral Cartwright because you had an over zealous Exec. However, Ensign Jackson, one of the pool aides, will probably know how to get in touch with him without having to go through the Admiral. He's off duty on Friday's. The clerk can get you his address. If' he's not there, try the Wayfarer Marina. Always hanging around down there. "

***

"Seems like a lot of trouble, sir," Wyatt complained as there was no response from Jackson's apartment, "Why don't we just wait and see what happens like the Admiral said?"

"I can't help myself," Nelson replied, taking a refreshing drag on a cigarette, "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see something very strange is going on. Cartwright and this Office 51 had him really spooked. Either the Admiral's a mean SOB or it's some kind of covert group. You don't have to come with me to the Marina if you donít want to.I'm sure you have other matters you'd rather be attending to.."

"Actually all the loading details are finished. I gave the remaining non-essentials shore leave. I guess I'll add our names to the list."

"Do that. Give me a half hour to change and I'll pick you up at your apartment."

***

"No, there's no boat registered to a Joseph Jackson here," the Marina's manager said, "Perhaps you have the wrong marina."

"There's no way we're going to find out anything about Crane," Wyatt grumbled.

"Crane?" an executive type waiting behind them asked, "I'm looking for a Lee Crane..."

"I have a Lee Crane here," the manager said, "Is he in some kind of trouble?" he added wishing, hoping to shove Crane out of his contract.

"That depends on what he's doing with my daughter."

"That's the Vagabond," the manager said, pointing out the window, "Crane's boat. The green sea-going ketch, the one with the blue masts."

What was of most interest to the men was not the little they could see of the of sailboat, but the bikini top and bottom flying like an ensign from the mast.

"I'll kill him!" the girl's father hurried out.

Wyatt gave Nelson his most expressive 'I told you so' look as the three men followed post haste down to slip 007.

***

"It's too big!" a girls' panting voice was just heard from inside the boat as the men approached.

"It's the only one I have," Crane's voice said sadly, "let's try again."

The sound of a kind of a rhythmic grating was followed by the girls' "Ow! Ow! Ow!" and a thunk of something crashing onto to the deck.

"Oh, get off me you big oaf!" she said seconds later.

Furious, the Armani suited man was racing up the gangplank, the officers a bit hesitant to follow, but follow they did.

Down the steps into the main salon at record speed, the men were greeted with the unexpected vision of a shattered entertainment unit, worn packing boxes and old newspaper filler scattered on the deck. The t-shirt and jeans garbed young man was trying to pull a reluctant big dog from the also fully clothed girl in Lee's Academy sweats, who was nursing a sore thumb and wiping dog drool from her face.

"Daddy?" she asked, when she saw the intruders, "What are you doing here?"

"Commander Wyatt?" Lee was just as surprised as he took in the two men behind him.

"I donít know about them," the girl's father said, "but I was going to rescue to you after what I heard on the dock..."

"On the dock?" the girl asked confused. "I don't know what you...oh, OH! Really Daddy!" she flushed.

"Never mind that now Felice. Are you okay?"

"I'd be happier if I could get 'Old Yeller' to quit trying to give me a bath."

"Commander Wyatt, what..." Lee asked.

"They can wait," Felice's father said to Crane, menacing, "What is my daughter's bikini doing flying from the mast, and this," he touched Felice's sweats, "your's I presume, on her?"

"Well Ensign Crane?" Wyatt asked.

"Uncle Lee-ee! We're here!" a little girls' voice called from topside as multiple footsteps sounded topside.

"Lee's been the perfect gentleman,"Felice was telling her father.

"That doesn't explain your bikini as a ship's ensign!"

"It was the only place he could think of for it to dry without it getting dirty. Cheech! And for your information, Lee Crane is an officer in the US Navy."

"You think that makes me fell better?"

"Uncle Lee! Hurry up will ya? We're waiting!" a boy shouted, climbing down the steps, "Whoa," he took in Crane's shiner, "Ensign Joe?" he called up to the open hatch, "He's gone and gotten himself hurt again! Cheech, Uncle Lee, you a real klutz master."

"Not agai...."Jackson took in the debris as he came below and studied Crane."Uh, no, Peter. He already had the black eye and bruises."

"Let me guess? Camping trip? You know, one of these days he'll have to take us all along on one of his trips just so we can keep an eye on him! Uh, by the way," he winked at Lee, "who's the babe?"

"The 'babe' is my daughter young man!"Felice's father erupted

"He didn't mean anything by it Mr. Hawthorne, "Lee tried to defuse the situation.

"Ill mannered ruffian..."

"Hey!" Pete shouted, "You can't call him that!"

"I meant you!"

"Assemble the crew Mr. Christian," Lee interupted, brooking no argument. He was not in the mood for Pete to exercise his noted vocabulary.

"Aye aye Captain Bligh," he replied, the words mocking of the notorious Captain, but given in absolute adoration toward Crane before he returned topside to join his friends.

"I'll see you to the dock, sir," Lee said to Hawthorn. "Will you excuse me a moment Commander?" he remembered Wyatt and escorted Felice and her father up the steps, the dog following.

"Have I met you some place before?" Nelson asked 'Ensign Joe' meanwhile, who was almost finished picking up debris.

"Not that I know of sir," Jackson lied, shoving what he could of the garbage into one of the larger boxes, and stacking the larger pieces into the small head's shower and closing the door. "But the Commander might have. I'm assigned to an aide pool at the base. Ensign Joseph L. Jackson. Ensign Joe to the kids. Lee Crane's best friend, Academy roommate and designated if unofficial 'keeper', well sort of anyway."

"How many nieces and nephews does he have?" Wyatt asked of the noise.

"Technically, not a one," Joe laughed. "Local kids down on their luck," he explained. "They made Lee an uncle right off. Some from dysfunctional families, some are fostered, some orphaned, some in detention, and some really good kids just wanting a little fun. When Lee didn't meet the requirements for a 'Big Brother', the Child Services Organization jumped on his offer to give kid's some time out sailing when he could. Oh, he was up front about it, told them he simply needed more than a two man crew for this rust bucket of his, and was killing two birds with one stone, but, "Jackson said conspiratorially, "they knew and I knew and even the kids knew that he simply takes his Good Samaritan duties a bit too seriously. So everyone wins."

"We'll be delayed," Lee said as he came down the stairs. "Felice is doing a little damage control so she won't be coming with us today. I still don't see why her father was so irrational."

"Oh that's just swell. No chaperone for the girls."

"I know. I was hoping maybe you could talk Sally into it?"

"Me? No way bud. Your boat, your duty. Tell you what though; I'll make sure you're wearing earplugs when you talk to her."

"What's the problem?" Wyatt asked innocently enough "Aren't the two of you enough? How many kids are you taking out anyway?"

"It's not that," Jackson replied, "We can, no problem, legally. But a boatload of boys, five this trip, two bachelors and only a couple of litle girls? Not a good idea."

"What he means," Lee said, "is that girls are...different. I know it sounds sexist, but they are...and the boys goad them a bit much. They don't dare if there's a 'mom' figure or teacher type aboard. At least, not out loud. So, Mr. Wyatt, I'm sorry things were a bit out of hand when you came aboard. What did you want to see me about?

Wyatt looked at Nelson, questioning.

"Mr. Wyatt simply wanted to introduce me to my new fifth officer. Captain Harriman Nelson."

"No kidding?" Lee asked shaking his hand, "That's great! Nelson...Nelson..."Crane mused..."I know I've heard that name somewhere before..."

"Tell me," Nelson stifled a chuckle at Wyatt's expression, being unused to his CO being unheard of, "Just how did you come to purchase this boat anyway?"

"And why would anyone want to?" Wyatt said under his breath.

"You know," Nelson said as he fingered some of the woodwork, "the legal department can help you get your money back. Maybe find a better boat

Especially since you apparently use it for charity."

"Oh no, it's not like that. I just fell in love with her...."

"Uncle Lee!" another boy called down, "Hurry up!"

"Ahh..Joe would you start assembly for me?"

"Nu Uh. Your boat, your job. I'm just along to make sure you don't fall overboard, but...if you should happen to give me that dusty old bottle of Glen Livet..."

"I was going to sell that, it's worth a lot of money... oh all right," Lee scrambled around in a locked cabinet, and pulled it out and put a 'Mr. Yuk' sticky circle on it from a galley drawer and put it back. "Satisfied? And after you've settled the troops, call Sally from the pier phone."

"I knew there'd be a catch," Joe winked at the officers and headed up.

"Assembly give's the kids a chance to vent, talk, and draw lots on who's got what duty for the cruise," Lee explained," Please sirs, sit down...uh,"he noticed boxes and tools scattered on whatever piece ofwasn't otherwise occupied by books, magazines, and a few stuffed animals and toys, including some for the dog.

"I think the deck's just fine," Nelson lowered himself to the deck and sat cross legged as Wyatt looked on, aghast. "Those spirits must have set you back a bit," he added, an aficionado of the stuff.

"Actually," Lee said as he sat, "I found it when I was tearing out the old master cabin's bed frame. Jammed between one of the boards and the hull plate. Probably Doug Fairbanks own stash. Senior. One of Vagabond's original owners. I've got her pedigree someplace...but I'm sure you're not here to let me wax on about my best girl....No splinters on the deck Mr. Wyatt, I promise," Lee added. "So, sirs," Lee continued after Wyatt had also set himself down on the deck, "What can you tell me about Nautie? Where' we off too? What's our mission? What's my job?"

"Duty officer for the third watch, part of the first, and of course, wherever and whenever you're needed," Wyatt said. "You'll also be the officer in charge of laundry."

"I think Ensign Crane would be better suited as morale officer, don't you think Bob?"

"As you wish sir, but...."

"I'm sure I can do both, sir," Lee said.

"Let's just start with morale in addition to your other duties and see how we go from there lad," Nelson said.

Uh, oh,Wyatt thought. While he was glad Nelson had backed him up, Nelson only used 'lad' when he put someone under his wing.

"Our mission, of course," Nelson continued, "will be revealed to us as we depart or until we're at sea. You know, lad..."

Damn, there it was again.

"We've been having a problem finding your service record," Nelson was saying, "in fact there isn't a copy in Personnel. So, tell me about this commendation you told Mr. Wyatt about."

"Oh that...well, it's kind of a long story...we sort of intercepted U-Zex."

"U-Zex?? "Nelson exclaimed, well aware of the state of the art red sub.

"Yeah, boy were they po'd when we sniffed them out of hiding and stole all their firing sequences. But that's not what really got them angry."

"It wasnít'?"

"Nah. What really got them mad was when their onboard computer fried, along with the one at their HQ they were linked to. They never could figure out what happened," he grinned.

Now, to an ordinary observer that was all it was. But there was something more to that grin; Nelson was sure of it.

"Can I offer you some refreshment? There's cold beer in the fridge, and I think I have some Tahitian brandy someplace... maybe you'd both like to come along? You can even take the helm if you like, briefly of course. That's why the kids are aboard. I can even offer you lunch."

"I'd be delighted," Nelson said, "How about it Bob? Youíve been complaining about not enough fresh air lately."

"Stow the water bucket!" Pete called out, "The wicked witch of the west is here!"

"Very funny, where's your lord and master?" a woman answered.

"Where'd you think? Kissing the bulkheads and encouraging the engine to work for a change."

"God, I hate sailors. Lee? Your shots up to date? I don't want to catch anything!"

"Come on down Sally! I'd like you to meet my new Skipper and XO!"

The men stood up as the woman came below. She was not in any way shape or form ghe 'mom' or 'schoolteacher' type they expected. She was a voluptuous beauty.

"Not again?" she asked, taking in Lee's face. "What happened this time?"

"Camping trip," the men said in unison.

"Lee, Lee, Lee," she ruffled his hair," you have got to go to some classes. There's no need to be embarrassed. Maybe the Boy Scouts have something..."

"Sal, will you quit with the hair thing?" Lee said irritated, "You know I don't like it! And I don't need camping lessons."

"Your face says otherwise. As for your glorious little curls that the Navy hasn't hacked off, too bad, ducky. If I have to serve time chaperoning the little savages, I'm entitled to a few perks even if we're not an item anymore. And who are these two fine looking gentlemen?"

"Uncle Lee-ee-eee!!!" a youthful group yells demanded attention along with some individual "C'mon on already!'s " and one "I could'a gone to a movie for all the time we're wasting!"

"Well," Lee said, "while you three get acquainted I'd better go see to my crew or risk mutiny before we even get underway."

Soon Vagabond had cast off and was pulling slowly away from the dock, under a very noisy and irritable engine.

As Sally Meeps made casual conversation with Crane's superiors, they felt the engine stop and the boat take to the wind.

"Would I be in the way if I went topside now?" Nelson asked. "Lee sort of promised me I could take the helm."

"Oh you will. I'd give it a few more minutes though; Lee will let you know when it's safe to join the little monsters. The kids can be bit demanding; they won't exactly appreciate you taking any of his attention from them. By the way, what's he feeding us for lunch?"

"He didn't say," Wyatt said.

"Oh great, one of those," she began to open one cupboard after another, "You'd think if he's going to waste his money on this junk heap, he could at least keep some decent food on board...yeech, Spam, Spam, and more Spam, Peanut Butter, Franks and beans...Twinkies, snowballs, peanut butter cups...god, his arteries must be a ticking time bomb."

"Perhaps it's all for the kids."

"That's even worse. Whatever happened to 'eat your veggies'? You don't get tight abs like these," she patted her own, "caving into junk food or Navy surplus, see? Right on the label. Navy Surplus Yard. Cheech. Who knows where it's been."

"Skipper? Mr. Wyatt?" Lee popped his head down the hatch, "Want to show the kids how a real Navy Captain and XO take the helm?"

"You sure Lee?" Nelson asked. "Miss Meeps was saying ..."

"I only said the kids might resent it."

"What?" Lee replied, "Okay, maybe a little, but as I've been told by a certain person with whom we're all acquainted, 'my boat, my decision'. Sally? I don't suppose you'd mind putting together some food? Oh, and make sure there's at least one soy milk for Debbie. We got it mixed up with the regular last time...use the canned stuff."

"Any thing else slave master?"

"Well now that you mention it...I'm kind of in the mood for a fried egg sandwich..."

"Did you have Joe call me to be a chaperone or a galley slave? All you've ever really been interested in are my skills with a can opener, even before we broke up. Oh go play with your boat, I'll feed you."

"I doubt that's all he sees in you," Nelson said diplomatically after Lee ducked back topside.

"Oh I turned his head at first, certainly. But we had some issues we just couldn't resolve to each other's satisfaction.Still," she sighed, "I miss him. He's awfully good in bed....sorry; I didn't mean to embarrass you. You'd better get up there before the natives grow too restless."

***

It was one of the most grueling sea exercises he'd experienced in years, even if it was of short duration. Crane and his crew were certainly putting Vagabond through her paces. Nelson was about to hand over the wheel for one of the kid's turns at it when his 'relief' approached.

"Finally," the boy was saying, "I don't care if he is a Captain, Uncle Lee, he doesn't handle her very well."

"What did we talk about just the other day?" Crane asked.

"Can't you give it a rest? Okay okay. Iím sorry I said you didn't handle her very well Captain Nelson. You can't, but I'm sorry I said it."

"It took us all a little time to get used to her nuances, remember Tommy? We'll continue on this course for the next ten minutes then we'll drop anchor and have a bite."

"Aye aye, sir."

"And next time, be polite," Lee said. "Captain, perhaps you'd like to relieve Mr. Wyatt as bow lookout for a while."

"Lee, perhaps this wasn't a good idea..."

"Nonsense. You should see me at the helm sometimes!"

But he had, seen Lee at the helm the other day, that was, and realized Crane was just trying to soften the blow to his ego.

"There're a couple of frisky dolphins riding our bow just begging for someone to teach us all about them. How about it Captain? Mr. Wyatt says you're into that sort of thing. Science and stuff."

"Actually, I think I'd prefer 'Mr.' on this boat. You're the Captain here."

"Kids? For those of you off duty, Cap...Mr. Nelson is going to teach us a little about our hitchhikers...."

***

While the meal of canned pork & beans, hot dogs, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the sunlight streamed deck might not have earned any gastronomic accolades in gourmet circles, the kids had enjoyed it, even the dog had, who was at this moment rough-housing it with Lee and some of the the kidsnot on 'clean up detail'.

"I wonder if Child Services reimburses Crane for all this." Wyatt was asking Nelson.

"Well, they would," Sally answered as she'd just appeared on deck, adjusting her modest two piece bathing suit, now that she and the little girls had changed. "If Lee would ever remember to turn in the paperwork. Frankly I doubt he's even bothered....he'd be an awfully good father," she looked at him wistfully. "Or some kind of Office Manager."

"Uncle Lee!" the little girls were saying as they joined Lee and the dog. "Miss Sally says you're going away!"

"Uncle Lee?" the boys chimed in, concerned.

"Only for a little while," he gave Sally a glare before continuing," I was going to tell you. I've been assigned to a submarine and...."

"Don't you love us anymore?" one of the girls asked on the verge of tears.

"Oh, sweetie," he cradled her in his arms, "Of course I do. And it's not like its forever. Ensign Joe will be able to take you out whenever he can."

"We're here because we like you, not the boat!" Pete said. "It's great of course, but...gee...do you gotta' be in the Navy?"

"I've been called away before...."

"Yeah, but that's office stuff. Business trips. Not some ship."

"Boat."

"Boat, schmoat...cheech, Uncle Lee," another piped up, "who cares what's its called if it's going to take you away from us."

"Nothing on earth could ever do that. Not really. Let me explain," he added to their confused looks. "No matter where I am, no matter how long I might be gone, each and every one of you is right here," he patted his heart. "Can you keep me in yours even if I can't be here in person?"

"Oh Uncle Lee!!!" the kids practically climbed over themselves to hug him.

"Hey troops, let him breathe, okay?" Jackson called. "Boys, if you want to swim you'd better get changed."

"You'll be careful won't you Uncle Lee?" one of the little girls asked. "You won't let any whales or octopuses eat your submarine?"

"How about it Skipper?" Lee asked Nelson, "Any problems with those denizens of the deep munching Nautilus?"

"None whatsoever and I think I can promise your crew that I'll personally see to it that Uncle Lee is well taken care of."

"Well, at least he won't be able to go on any camping trips on a sub!" Pete said with relief.

"Get below and get changed Mr. Christian," Lee said.

"Aye aye Captain Bligh."

***

Nelson was surprised that Crane hadn't joined the group for swim call. Those duties had been taken by Sally and Jackson as the kids splashed about, the younger ones in life vests and water wings. Even Wyatt had joined in, attired in a borrowed set of Crane's trunks.

"Something on your mind Lad?" Nelson sat beside him.

"Oh, it's just," he absently scratched the dog's ears, "god, how I'm going to miss them."

"It's only temporary."

"It's temporary aboard Nautilus, yes. But," he lowered his voice, "It's won't be if my request for the Ariel goes through. The kid's will never forgive me..."

"I very greatly doubt that Lee."

"On one hand I feel I'm doing the right thing. Subs are what I trained for, what I've wanted my whole life, and then...then I feel like I'd be deserting them..."

"Do you feel Navy parents desert their families?"

"Of course not. You don't understand. I know all about that. I was a Navy brat for awhile. We handled it okay, mom and me. Duty, honor, country.But...I was one of these kids once...leftovers, shuttled between one agency and the next...before the Cranes took me in...Who's going to let them know they're worth loving? Worth caring about? I know Joe's nice to them but he doesn't have the same...empathy, I guess you'd call it. They're smart kids, trust me, they can tell."

"Then," Nelson said after a moment, a little disturbed and little humbled at the same time by the boy's revelation, "they'll be smart enough to know you deserve a chance to follow your dream. The same way you're helping them to live theirs. I think if I was one of them, I'd be very proud of you."

For a moment both men just sat, enjoying the sounds of the laughter, before a minor scuffle started and Jackson had to demand the two culprits hike back up to the boat for corporal punishment.

Lee, as Captain, listened to both sides of the argument, made the two shake hands and assigned them to the dubious task of giving the reluctant dog a bath. A short while later swim call was concluded and the troops climbed back aboard. Sally and the girls had first crack at the main salon to dry off and change, while the boys taunted the culprits on, who had by now decided to cooperate just to get the job done.

Soon Vagabond was underway again, this time with Lee at the helm, at his crew's insistence especially as he wouldn't be able to steer a submarine himself. Upon arrival at the dock, Lee personally escorted the kids to the waiting Child Services van in the Marina's parking lot. They said their goodbyes and several hugs and kisses (from the girls) later, it drove away with the kids and Lee waving at each other until it was out of sight..

"Permission to go ashore?" Jackson called to the returning Crane.

"Well," he strode up the gangplank, "That depends. Everything shipshape?"

"If you mean the garbage's been picked up and ready to put in the marina's dumpster, yes," Sally said, "If you mean Vagabond's head, or her engine, or her dry rot, well..."

"Close enough for government work, very well, permission granted," Lee grinned, "Joe, you will take good care of her for me won't you? The kids, and..."

"Lee, Lee, Lee, Have I ever failed you?"

"No, but..."

"And I'm sure Sally or Felice will be glad to help out whenever I need them."

"Okay but..."

"Well?" Jackson demanded.

"It's just..."

"Oh good grief," Joe went over to the ship's wheel and patted it. "Good girl, There? You satisfied I can do it right? Get a life Lee! Now, can we go home?"

"I uh, I think I'll stay aboard tonight. Captain? Commander? Thanks again for helping out. I'll report to Nautilus at 0800 sharp as requested."

Nelson smiled in response and strode down the gangplank, followed by Wyatt.

"Can we give you a lift Ensign Jackson?" Nelson asked.

"No, thank you sir; I think I'll be staying aboard too."

"You don't have to baby-sit me Joe," Lee said.

"Baby-sit? Whatever put that thought in your head? I'm just aboard to help you eat the pizza I'm going to order."

As the officers neared the Marina office, Nelson had an inspiration. Ducking into the small gift shop for a few moments, he emerged empty handed and with a wink to Wyatt and headed to the car.

***

As Nautilus got underway the next morning and was clearing the harbor, Wyatt , in the conning tower, pointed Crane toward the shoreline and one of its many marinas. Flying atop a familiar mast was a deep blue banner with a white ship's wheel, and a guiding star above it.

"Hey, that's..."

"The Skipper's idea," Wyatt found himself grinning, "a little something he'd said, for one of our 'Ensigns of Command'."

For a moment Crane didn't know what to say.

"Well mister? Are you going to take us down or not?"

"Me sir?" Lee asked, surprised and delighted.

"You sir, and Crane, please don't scratch the paint. It's a bit shallow."

"Right away sir...I mean," he grabbed the mike and began "Prepare to Dive!"

Wyatt had already gone below, the men on deck doing the same. Taking one last look, at both his boats and giving Vagabond a hearty salute and Nautilus a pat on the coaming, Lee climbed below to continue the dive, his first aboard Nautilus, and hopefully, one of several in his career to follow.

***

Meanwhile Admiral Cartwright watched the sub's descent from his window at the non descript and secret branch ofONI. Yes, he was thinking...Crane would learn his lesson but good on that old wreck, and come crawling back. He already had an assignment just waiting for his return. Jackson was more an office clerk now than an agent, but he might do in a pinch. Still, he'd prefer Crane. He reallycouldn't go on having it both ways. Was Lee a spy or a submariner? The Navy had given him both designations. It was not forgotten by anyone involved that Crane could remind his Commander in Chief and the SecNav of what they had promised the midshipman less than five years ago.An accident of being caught in a 'situation' and his ensuing actions had moved them to grab Crane for special training and the odd assignment even before he was commissioned. The Submarine business they'd agreed to was really more a cover for the Agency, or so they'd tried to convince themselves. But they'd known better. It was Cartwright who'd promised to turn the boy around...this trip aboard Nautilus had better work.

"She sure is a great looking boat for her age isn't' she?" Jackson interrupted handing him some files he read briefly, a scowl forming on his lips from the one with the embossed Navy seal and signature.

"Ensign? What happened to you?" he asked, finally taking in the rash on his face and hands.

"Occupational hazard helping Lee with his kids, sir."

"My god! Measles?" Cartwright asked, wishing, hoping... A communicable disease would get Crane off the sub quick enough and maybe....

"Oh, no sir. Flea dip. The kids used the wrong shampoo on the dog. Neither of us caught on to the mistake. Not too observant at the time. Don't worry, skin's just irritated. It's not contagious."

"I see," Cartwright said, the disappointment in his voice. "Jackson? You like Crane don't you? You want what's best for him?"

"Of course sir. He's my best friend."

"Talk him out of subs."

"He's been trying to talk you into them, what makes you think he'll change his mind?"

"Nothing apparently," Cartwright handed the letter over. "Damn. He was the best agent we had."

"Ariel...wow. That boat's right up there with...sorry sir. Can't you be happy for him sir?

"No I can't. I don't care what he wants. He's too good an agent to allow any personal considerations."

"I thought we were all volunteers sir."

"Well he can't very well do anything if he's stuck on a damn sub!"

"Unless he's removed from the boat forcibly," Jackson laughed then tried to take it back..."That was a joke sir! You wouldn't....sir!?"

"Ensign Crane has always done his duty, so have you. In fact, I have a little assignment just perfect for you to take your mind off Crane... or would you like to explain to me and the SecNav just how Crane's approval to the Ariel bypassed the usual filter between that office and mine?"

"You can't think that I had anything to do with it?"

"Damn right I do. Now, you want the assignment or not?"

"When do I go?"

"I thought you'd say that. And just to ease your mind, I'll let Crane enjoy Nautilus without interuption. He's not due aboard Ariel for awhile unless they push things. Now, as for your assignment..."

***

"Cartwright, you are an SOB," Simmons said the next day as he had some cotton candy at the locally sponsored Red Cross carnival.

"Serves him right, going over my head like that."

"Hardly the covert operation you were going to send Crane on!"

"No, but can you think of anything better to put him in his place?"

"Frankly, no," Simmons agreed, laughing."Wha...who the hell is she?" he asked, his mouth agape as Sally in a skin tight swimsuit climbed onto the dunking platform of the Navy's 'dunk a sailor' tank contributed to the event.

Wolf whistles grew in number and intensity as the officers found themselves soon pushed out of the way by the crowd.

"I'll kill him," Cartwright fumed.

"Uh uh, actually you can't, Admiral. I know you meant he was supposed to be the dunkee, but he's really only following orders isn't he? To get people to pay for balls to throw to try to dunk someone into the tank? Cant' say too many folks would fancy dunking him over her."

"Sneaky, irascible, just like Crane!"

"Part of his job description," Simmons patted his arm," just part of his job."

It didn't help that Felice joined Sally and the tank was the busiest place at the fund raiser.

***

Wyatt was headed to Officers Country aboard Nautilus less than a month later with a message from Sparksin hand when he heard an all too familiar voice from just inside the forward supply room.

"It's too big," Crane was saying, "We'll have to try again."

"What the devi..."Wyatt barged in fearing, well, something.

"Oh, hi Mr. Wyatt. Looks like somebody got some components goofed up again... model numbers F-15 and P-15 sometimes the print get's too worn to tell thedifference and sometimes the indent doesn't quite make it. Size is almost the same, unit wise, but not quite. Install this in turbine B and you won't have any more problems with it sir."

"Thank you Mr. Crane," the mechanic said as he began to take a box of the correct gears to the Engine room. "I'm sure glad somebody knows what's been the matter with it."

"What can I do for you, sir?"Crane asked theXO.

"Message for you, Lee," Wyatt handed it over.
"Shit!"

"I thought you'd be happy about it."

"Oh it's not that sir...Ariel's a dream boat. It's just...is the Skipper busy?"

"Well, he's got the conn right now."

"Oh."

"But I'm sure he won't mind a quick question. Come on, we'll stop by the Wardroom and pick up some coffee to take with us. Almost your bedtime isn't it?"

"Yeah, but who can sleep now."

***

"Congratulations Ensign Crane," Way to go sir!" and various other accolades greeted the men as they joined Nelson.

"Thanks," Crane replied genially, then took Nelson aside, "Skipper, I...I respectfully request permission to decline the posting to the Ariel sir."

"What??"

"It's not that's she's not going to be a great boat sir, she's one in a million, I'd even hoped for, prayed for something like this, but I didn't expect it all that quick.What I mean is....I kind of wanted to earn my dolphins aboard Nautilus. Finish the patrol..."

"Not used to leaving any job unfinished, that it lad?" Nelson asked gently.

"Yes sir...and, well, I kind of like the old girl."

"Ariel's sea trials were moved up and you were hand picked, according to the orders for the preliminary evaluations in less than three weeks. I don't really think you have a choice, Lee."

"And who knows, maybe you'll earn those dolphins here just the same," Chief Downey added.

"No Chief. You know the rules...it's a matter of accumulated hours, not just ability."

"Well, begging your pardon sir, but I think it should be. Ability that is sir. You'd of had em' a long time ago."

"Yeah!" "That's right!" the crewmen joined in.

"Thanks. But I wouldnít bend these rules even if I could. They're in place for a reason, the experience. 17 days....any idea where our nearest landfall to an airport will be then?"

"No need," Nelson said. "We received another communication. A chopper will pick you up tomorrow 0130."

"Tomorrow?"

"I know it's short notice, but we may be under too long to allow for you to leave otherwise. The chopper will take you to the Triumphant and from there you'll be flown back to base to get your affairs in order before heading to Norfolk. I think you should try to get a little sleep. As much as I, as we all, regret your loss, consider yourself removed from Nautilus as of now. All the best Ensign," Nelson shook his hand, "You realize if I could..."

"It's okay sir...we all have to follow orders."

***

It had been an uneventful transfer from the sub to the chopper, except for the fact that all hands, including those on rack time, had to a man said good bye and wished luck to one of their own. Nautilus bobbed on the surface as what men could had crammed topside to wave goodbye as the helicopter flew out of view into the ink black sky.

***

Light was breaking as Lee finally boarded Vagabond.Joe had been looking after her well, he could tell, her banner neatly folded and ready to be raised when she took to sail again. Inside, some more paintwork had been done and the head actually worked without much of a mess.

Lee was glad he'd have enough time to take the kids out on one more cruise, and say good bye to all of them including Felice, Sally, Joe, even Joe's dog, before heading to his new port of call. But he knew where his longer leaves would be spent. No doubt Jackson would continue to look after Vagabond and the kids as he could, and they might even have the odd assignment together. As Cartwright had said, 'once an Agent, always an Agent'. But at long last he was on his way to becoming a bone fide submariner.

Unpacking his duffle bag, Lee felt something amis and pulled out an unmarked manilla envelope. Opening it, he found pinned to the sub's official stationery, a set of officer's dolphins, onemetal and one fabric. He recognized the fabric swatch; it had a small stain Nelson had incurred from an errant fountain pen. The metal? Brand spanking new, a replacement piece of decoration from stores, and engraved, against regulations on the back with Ensign Lee Crane, SSN Nautilus.

Now in the ways of the Navy Lee would be unable to wear either, nor claim them as his by right, not yet. But it made no difference as his eyes welled up with emotion. He had his dolphins at last.

***

The End

 

A Cannon Note: In a great deal of Voyage fan fiction Lee's Academy roommate is Chip Morton and knows Nelson from those days. However, in the series, there is no indication of either having happened whatsoever that I know of, hence an explanation to those wondering what's going on in this story.

'Camping Trip'-term frequently used by Crane for a covert or undercover assignment with ONI