This story takes place immediately after Twist of Fate. Chip Morton is still recovering from his injuries and Lee is coping with nearly losing his best friend. This tale is the introduction of Serena Harrison onto the lives of Harry, Lee, and Chip and the second encounter Lee has with Chip’s sister, Wendy.
Thanks be to my beta, for the odious chore of plowing through an overabundance of commas and my annoying habit of skipping words.
With a quick glance at his watch, Will Jamieson confirmed that it was well past midnight and unsuccessfully tried to suppress a massive yawn. The last time he’d been this tired it had been after hours of surgery and Sickbay had been filled to capacity.
But not this night. Sickbay was host to only one patient this evening, although Will strongly suspected he had a second visitor. As he neared the open door to the least favorite part of the boat Will felt a smile tugging at his lips. He wasn’t wrong. In the dimly lit Sickbay, a lean figure slouched in a chair by the occupied bunk. Considering the events of the last few weeks, Will didn’t have the heart to chase him out. He would try to reason with him but Will knew it was a lost battle from the start. Still, it never hurt to try.
“Skipper, he’s not going anywhere. Why don’t you go back to your cabin and get some real sleep? That chair can’t be comfortable.”
Lee Crane slowly tilted his head to look up at the doctor. “Would you believe I’m afraid to let him out of my sight? Like if I blink, he’ll be gone?”
Will shook his head. “Actually, I can understand where you’re coming from. His condition is stable—he just needs to rest. I’m willing to bet he's had about as much sleep as you in the past few days. Less then you, maybe.”
“I’ll go in a bit. If he wakes up, I want him to know everything’s okay now.” Lee adjusted his position in the chair, not making any effort to leave.
“Lee, he's not going anywhere. I promise. You need to go to your cabin. Chip knows he's safe now else he wouldn't be sleeping this deeply.”
Lee continued to sit. Will didn't back down, hoping that this time he could reach through the skipper's iron will and convince him Chip wasn't going to vanish from Seaview's Sickbay in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Jamieson rested a hand on Lee's shoulder. He could feel the tension in the skipper's lean muscles.
Lee couldn’t take his eyes off his best friend, noticing details he’d never paid attention to before now: the dark circles under Chip's eyes, and the way his face seemed hollow. There was a bandage on his arm hiding a deep and nasty cut. Lee still didn't know where that came from. Acquired when the ship blew apart? Chip hadn't explained what had happened yet—he’d been so exhausted when they hauled him out of the zodiac he'd nearly passed out in Lee's arms once they got him on deck. Lee had practically carried him to Sickbay. With his head tilted slightly toward the bulkhead the muscles of Chip’s neck were pulled tight, the veins just under the skin pulsing with the beat of life. It was the only hint that Chip was alive. “I can't leave him,” was Lee's quiet answer
With a sigh Jamie relented, giving Lee’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “Okay. I won't run you out. Just keep in mind he's exhausted. This is the best thing for him right now. I can't predict when he might wake up.”
“I know. Go on, you get some rest. I'll hang around for a while.”
Will gave Lee's shoulder a quick squeeze. “Try to make it to your rack for a little while at least.”
“Sure thing. Oh, Jamie,”
“Thanks for not running me out. You could if you really wanted.”
Jamieson laughed softly. “I still could but in this case I'll be merciful. Good night, Skipper.” Jamie turned to leave and wasn’t surprised to see Admiral Nelson leaning against the door. Jamie shrugged and Nelson simply smiled.
“How are they?” the admiral asked quietly. His use of the plural ‘they’ wasn’t lost on the doctor.
“Resting. Chip’s going to sleep for some time yet and I don’t think Lee’s going to let him out of his sight any time soon. I am heading for my cabin and I suggest you do the same. We’ve all had a long day.”
“That we have, Jamie. I was just on my way to mine when I thought I’d check in on everyone. However, after seeing them I think I’ll leave them be. Chip needs the rest and Lee needs to be close to him, for a while yet.”
“Truer words have never been spoken. I’ll see you for breakfast then.” Jamieson bid a ‘good night’ to the admiral leaving his employer as he found him, leaning against the door.
Harriman Nelson stood there for a long stretch, watching his boys.
His boys. Lee and Chip. As close as brothers, they were his sons in all but blood. He was proud of his sons, as proud as any father could possibly be. What Nelson feared was the day this team might be broken up. Nelson wasn’t sure he could face a day without Lee Crane or Chip Morton in his life. So much of what he did was dependant on their leadership and friendship, their opinions, and oddly enough, their guidance. A day without Lee or Chip would be like a day with out a sunrise. Seaview wasn’t the same without the pair of them in the control room.
Brothers in every sense of the word, tied together by something stronger than blood. Nelson could not think of a single thing that might break that bond.
Chip Morton’s sleep was anything but peaceful. Nightmare images of great stone faces seemed to growl and snarl at him. A wild cackling voice seemed to scream at him as the images and sounds reverberated through his dream.
An old man, weathered and aged, wild colors of feathers spilled over his head and back, a skin of gold with black spots covered his shoulders…brilliant green eyes and a wild man of red hair…a name that comes from the sea… It’s my gold and you can’t keep it from me…I'll cut your arms and legs off…The sound of a shotgun blast and a mournful voice echoed hollowly…Thou shall not kill…Thou shall not kill…another explosion, fire and heat and his body slamming into the ocean…he tried to swim to safety. He knew Seaview was out there if he could reach her…but something was holding him, something that seemed to be pushing him under the waves…he struggled, unable to breathe, the seawater rushing down into his lungs, thieving away his breath, stealing his voice…
“NO!” Chip surged up out of the bunk, connected with the something holding him down. He sat up as the dream quickly faded and he blinked in the dim light. He recognized he was in Sickbay, aboard Seaview. Glancing around, he saw Lee sitting on the floor, a confused look on his face.
“Lee? What are you doing on the floor?” Chip asked slowly as his sleep-fogged brain began to work again.
“Well, I started out in the chair and you started having a nightmare. I tried to wake you up but that must have been a whopper of a dream. Next thing I know I’m sitting on the floor,” Lee explained.
Chip managed to look embarrassed. “Sorry. I guess I didn’t realize it was you.”
Lee scrambled to his feet and sat back down in the chair. “No harm done,” he said. Glancing at his friend, Lee could see his eyes still had something of a wild look to them, as if whatever dream he’d had was still lurking somewhere in the back of his mind. He’d had nights like that. Awakened by some nightmare, he’d lay awake sometime, half afraid to go back to sleep in case the nightmare hadn’t completely faded, as if it would return and exact vengeance on the sleeper for waking up in the first place. “You okay now?”
Chip ran a hand through his hair. He paused, seeing the stitches in his arm. The flash of a blade, the impact as the machete crashed into the section of pipe he’d found…his muscles spasming with each blow he fended off…the sting as the blade cut through skin and muscle…his blood dripping warm down his arm and onto the deck…
“Chip! Snap out of it!” Lee’s voice was like a needle-sharp point that cut through the daze. Chip blinked and stared, finally focusing on Lee.
“What happened?” the blond asked timidly.
Lee’s soul ached to be able to take back the last few weeks his friend had gone through. But there was nothing now but time that could make that lost and haunted look in his blue eyes fade. The one thing Lee could do was offer Chip the only thing he had to give. Friendship. Lee extended his palm. Hesitantly Chip dropped his hand into Lee’s, each man gripping the other’s wrist. “I’ve got your back. You know that. It’s over.”
Chip’s grip tightened. “Are you sure? English might have had friends, connections…”
Lee nodded, he eyes locked onto Chip’s. “We searched. All that’s left is debris. We didn’t even find any bodies.” Lee didn’t bother to mention he he’d used his own connections in ONI to find out everything he could about this Marcus English, in addition to the information the admiral had already dredged up. So far there was no evidence of relatives or other connections that might target Chip. “Nobody is coming after you again.”
Chip’s eyes closed and for a minute Lee feared his friend might pass out. But instead a shiver rolled through the young man’s frame before he pulled himself together. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to be home,” he whispered.
Lee grinned. “I’ve never been so glad to have you home.” His expression turned serious. “Chip, what happened out there?”
The blond turned to look at Lee, his eyes shifting until he was looking through Lee. Right now he didn’t want to remember. He wanted to forget, to move on, to never be reminded of Marcus English again. “Maybe another day, Lee. Right now…I just can’t.”
Lee leaned back in the chair. “It’s okay. I understand.”
Chip also leaned back in the bunk, feeling the warmth of the mattress under him, the comforting embrace of the blankets over him. He took a deep breath and words slowly began pouring out. He was unable to stop them. “I didn’t know you were coming. I kept thinking the admiral thought I was too much a liability to deal with any more. Better to just let me disappear than deal with me anymore,” Morton whispered.
“God no, Chip. How
can you say something like that? We would never have stopped looking. We knew
where English was headed. If nothing else we’d have met him in Peru. There’s no
way he could have outrun us. You have to
“Lee, all I knew was that I’d been kidnapped by a madman who thought I knew the location to some mythical lost city. He’s…he was insane. Nothing I said to him could convince him I couldn’t and still don’t remember. I don’t think I’ll ever remember what happened to me.”
“It’s over now. Don’t worry about it. You’re safe, I promise. Think you’ll be all right if I leave? I promised Jamie I’d head to my cabin at some point.”
Chip froze for a second. In all honesty he really didn’t want Lee to leave. Lee was his lifeline right now, a reminder that this whole damn nightmare was really over. But he nodded anyway. “I’m good. Just wore out.”
“Get some rest. Keep telling yourself it’s over. You’re home now,” Lee reminded his friend as he pulled his hand away.
“It’s over. I’m home,” Chip complied with a grin. Slowly he settled back down into the bunk. He heard Lee and John’s voice softly whispering but it soon faded away as the fatigue and sheer exhaustion took over again. Chip slipped back into sleep as John settled in behind the desk, keeping watch.
Despite the late hour that Lee finally found his bunk, he was up at his usual time the next morning. After he’d showered and dressed in a fresh uniform he was better equipped to face the morning. Sickbay was the first stop to see how Chip was doing. What he found in Sickbay was nothing less than a surprise.
Chip Morton was sitting on the exam table, the most innocent expression Lee had ever seen on the blond. Jamie was standing with his arms crossed over his chest. As Lee entered Sickbay, the doctor shot the dark-haired young man a calculating look. “Oh good, a witness. This is how this is going to go down, Mr. Morton. You are going to do everything that I say or you’ll find yourself back in that bottom bunk. Do I make myself clear?”
“Crystal, Dr. Jamieson,” Chip barked but his blue eyes sparkled.
“Doc, are you cutting him loose?” Lee asked incredulously.
The doctor rolled his eyes. “He’s been up for three hours and I’m tired of hearing him whine. Light duty, Chip. And I mean it. You’re not to push anything heavier than a pencil. The only crawling around I want to hear about is you crawling into a bunk. Do we have an accord?”
Chip blinked and shot Lee a quick look. Crane shrugged. “You want outta here?”
“Do sharks bite?” Morton shot back.
“Good,” the doctor interrupted. “It’s settled. Skipper, you’re in charge of making sure he takes it easy the next couple of days.”
Lee almost giggled. “Why do I get to play babysitter?”
“Because I said so,” Jamie replied sagely.
Lee snorted. “You sound like my mother,” he replied. Jamie perked up and grinned.
“Hey, now that’s an idea; get your mothers to come along on the next cruise. Then I could just turn them loose on you when you get out of hand.” The doctor turned an amused glare at Chip who continued to blink wide innocent blue eyes. “Are you waiting for an invitation? Scram!” Jamie finally said, shooing the exec off the table with both hands.
Chip grinned and jumped off the table. “Thanks. Doc,”
“Anything to stop the whining,” was Jamie’s dry answer.
Chip headed for his cabin with Lee close behind. “You think you’re up to this? Maybe you should take it easy till we get back home,” Lee suggested. He understood how Chip probably felt but this just seemed far too soon for Lee.
Chip scoffed. “I’m fine. I’m sick of lying around. If I don’t do something soon I’ll go bonkers.”
“It’s been just over twenty four hours since we pulled you out of the drink,” Lee reminded.
Chip opened the door of his cabin, hitting the lights as he entered. Lee followed. “I’m fine. What part of ‘I’m fine’ don’t you understand? You should know that phrase. I think you invented it.”
“Funny man. Seriously, Chip,” Lee started.
“Seriously, Lee,” Chip shot back in the same tone. “I’m going to take a shower and I’m going to put on a uniform. Then I’m going to do my best to put my world back into order. That’s what I need right now. Order. Sense. I need to control my life again.”
Lee didn’t say anything as Chip vanished into the head. A few seconds later Lee heard water running. Instead of leaving, Crane perched on the edge of the desk to wait. He didn’t have to wait very long. Pretty soon Chip immerged from the head with a towel around his waist and a second draped over his shoulders.
“Are you still here? Don’t you have a boat to run?”
“I’m the babysitter, remember?” Lee grinned. “Or maybe that’s exec-sitter?”
Chip shook his head as he opened the small closet and removed a uniform. It didn’t take him long to dress and he sat down on the edge of the bunk to put on his socks and shoes. Lee remained quiet. It hadn’t escaped the brunet that his friend was thinner than he remembered. The khaki pants, creased sharp enough to cut butter, seemed to hang off his hips. It looked to Lee that there was extra belt-length that Chip carefully pushed into the belt loops. And the shirt seemed to require extra tucking in. Chip caught his friend watching him. “You wanna put my socks on for me, Uncle Lee?” he asked.
Lee snorted. “I think you can dress yourself.”
A few more minutes in silence passed as Chip tied his shoes. Finally he stood up. “Tie. I need a tie,” he said as he headed back to the closet.
Lee shook his head. “You’re the only one I know who hangs their ties up,” he said, Chip ignored him as walked back to the mirror in the head, carefully adjusting his tie as he went. Finally he grabbed a comb off the sink and ran it though his white-blond short hair, taming it into something more presentable.
“Now. I need food,” Chip announced with a smile that would have frightened most people. Lee just rolled his eyes.
“What else is new? Come on, gut. Let’s feed you,” he said and slid off the desk.
Side by side, Lee and Chip left the cabin and headed toward the Wardroom. Their strides matched perfectly as they walked although neither seemed aware of it. It was natural for them, like breathing. Their friendship had seen them through rough times.
They entered the wardroom together, catching the attention of Cookie. The ship’s cook smiled at the ranking officers. “Skipper, Mr. Morton. Good to see you. Hope you like pancakes and sausage,” he said.
Everybody knew that Chip Morton could eat his weight in Cookie’s pancakes. Chip grinned. “Sign me up, Cookie. I am starving.”
In record time the pair had filled up and settled into their customary spots at the table. Chip had a huge plate of pancakes and sausage, hashbrowns and of course the holy grail of breakfast, the prescribed cup of coffee.
With the first sip Chip closed his eyes, reveling as the caffeine surged through his system, making him feel one more step closer to human. “Damn, that’s good,” he said.
Lee grinned. “A toast then. Welcome back, pal,” he said, holding his mug out. Chip clucked the rim of his cup to Lee’s and they both indulged in the brew that Cookie lovingly called coffee. Working through their breakfast, Lee brought Chip up to speed on how things were going and included the fact that they were running with less than a full crew. Chip glanced up at that comment.
“Well,” Lee began, “there was the matter of catching up with you. It took time for the tracker to charge but we didn’t have time to recall all the crew. We’re heading straight home so I don’t see how that’s going to be a problem. Our trim is good and all systems are working fine. We’ll be back in port in a few days. I don’t see what could go wrong,” Lee explained.
Chip looked unconvinced. “I hope you’re right,” he said as he stuffed another bite of pancake into his mouth.
Lee recognized the cadence of the footsteps coming around the corner and glanced to see Admiral Nelson entering the Wardroom. Nelson glanced at his boys and grinned.
“I see our exec is now ambulatory and on the loose,” Nelson observed.
“And happy to be moving under his own power,” Chip replied.
Nelson settled down at his spot with breakfast, casting guarded glances at both Lee and Chip. Chip seemed concerned with basically shoving pancakes in his mouth. Lee was eating at a more sedate pace and Nelson noticed that from time to time Lee would glance up at Chip, stare for a few seconds and then drop back to his plate, as if Lee were afraid to let Chip out of his sight, or checking to make sure that he was still there. Likewise Chip’s eyes tended to wander, lingering on various people moving in and out of the wardroom. Occasionally he’d catch the blond watching him and Chip’s eyes would nervously drop as if embarrassed that he’d been caught. Nelson chose not to comment on it. It was better to just enjoy the peace and quiet of the moment.
Once there Lee settled on the edge of the desk while Chip leaned against the bunk, leaving Nelson to accept the call on speakerphone. “Good morning, Captain Harper. What can we do for you?”
Harper’s somewhat gravely voice sounded over the speaker. “Morning Admiral. I’ll make this as quick as possible. Got a call a while ago concerning some bunch of researchers on a little cluster of islands not far from your current position.”
Nelson’s expression turned thoughtful as he considered what was said then he nodded as he remembered. With all the excitement concerning Chip he’d nearly forgotten. “Yes I remember now. Mapping a set of new tidal caves, the Marcanda expedition. It’s a joint project between us, the Navy and East Carolina University. Something hasn’t happened has it?” Nelson ran a hand through his hair, not sure of where this call was going. He had a bad feeling their calm cruise home was about to be cut short.
“We got a call from their support ship, The Orinoco, routed from their base camp. Seems they had a cave-in. Six people are trapped and they can’t establish communications with them. They’re thinking the worst has happened but they don’t have the resources to affect a full-scale rescue. Their support ship is a good twelve hours out, taking core samples, and we’re a full eight hours away. Seaview is closer by far.”
Nelson frowned. “Lee, what do you think?”
“If we’re this close…” Lee’s voice trailed off. He knew what Nelson was thinking. Some of those researchers where NIMR people. Nelson wouldn’t turn his back on them. Lee knew his mentor and he was pretty sure that somehow the older man would try to take the blame for any problem the team might have encountered. Lee had barely finished the thought when Nelson started grumbling.
“I hand picked four men for that project,” Nelson said distractedly. Absently he rubbed the top of one ear with a forefinger, deep in thought. “I think we’d better change course. I’ll notify Jamie about any possible casualties.”
Lee slid off the desk and headed for the door. “Aye sir, I’ll see to it at once. Chip?” He cast a glance toward the exec.
“I’ll get with Sharkey and have him start putting together some extraction gear and digging equipment,” he supplied, and followed Lee out.
Nelson watched the two men leave but his attention was still fixed on Harper’s report. “You said six casualties?” Nelson asked Harper. Occupying the recently vacated desk corner, Nelson stared down at the speakerphone.
“That’s what we were told. A Navy officer, two researchers from your Institute and three from ECU. I hope you can help them.”
“We’re running with less than a full crew but we’ll do what we can. I’ll keep you posted. Don’t suppose you have a chopper on that barge of yours?”
Harper chuckled. “I do indeed. Let me know if you need my bird. Be more than happy to airlift anybody who needs a ride.”
“We have a few resources but it’s good to have options.” After exchanging a few more concerns, the two men signed off. Nelson sat on the edge of his desk a little longer brooding over the men he’d hand picked to go along on this project. Maybe things weren’t as bad as reported. Nelson slid off the desk and left his cabin, heading for Sickbay. Time to tell Jamie his to-do-list was about to get bigger.
Nelson found the doctor at his desk, quietly going over a mound of paperwork and completely focused on the task at hand. Nelson cleared his throat when Jamieson didn’t immediately notice him. The doctor started, dropping his pencil onto the desk and shooting a murderous look at the interrupter. His expression mellowed upon seeing the intruder wore four stars.
“Admiral, sorry. Didn’t see you standing there. Trying to update Chip’s medical records. Sometimes I think I need to hire someone whose sole job is to maintain Lee and Chip’s files,” he explained with a wave to the tidy stack of forms.
“You’d have to pay them overtime,” Nelson responded with a grin. He took the unspoken invitation and dropped down into the nearest chair.
Jamieson snorted. “Coffee? It’s fresh.”
It was Nelson’s turn to snort. “It’s decaf. Lee and Chip will never forgive you if they find out.”
“So don’t tell them,” Jamie said with a smile. “What they don’t know won’t hurt them. Is this a social call or are you here for something specific?”
Nelson shrugged. “A little of both. About Chip—I saw him in the Wardroom. He looks like a man who stared death in the face. Is it a good idea to release him so soon?”
Jamieson sat the pencil he’d retrieved back down on the desk, focusing his entire being on the man before him. “Chip needs something I can’t give him. He needs to feel he’s needed and that he’s once more in control of his environment. You know how he is. The last few weeks, the extended stay in Med Bay, Lee moving in with him to play bodyguard, him being trapped on that ship, not knowing we were doing our best to catch up to him…he needs to know he’s in control of his life. Sure, I’d like it if he’d just take it easy until we get home. But since we’re headed straight back to Santa Barbara, it won’t hurt him if I keep him on light duty.” Nelson’s expression changed and Jamie frowned. “We’re not heading back to Santa Barbara, are we?”
“We’re changing course,” Nelson confirmed. “There’s been an accident on a small island called Marcanda. There may be half a dozen people trapped in a cave-in.”
“Six casualties. Are we taking them on?”
“We haven’t crossed that bridge yet. They have a support ship and I’ve already talked to Cpt. Harper about the possibility of air lifting anyone out. We also have the option of the Flying Sub.”
“Harper, from the Stennis? I didn’t know they were close by. Options are good. Do we have any idea of the extent of these casualties?”
“As of now, no. Chip is coordinating with Sharkey on the gear we might need. Until we actually find them, we have no idea how bad things might get.”
“Well, give me a shout when you need me. Thanks for the heads-up,”
Nelson got to his feet. “Not a problem. I assume you appointed Chip a keeper?”
Jamie grinned. “I doubt that I would have had to but it made for a handy excuse. Lee won’t let Chip overwork himself. If the roles were reversed, you know Chip wouldn’t let Lee out of his sight.”
“Good point. I’ll let you know how things turn out.”
Jamieson nodded his agreement. “Cave-ins are seldom pretty.”
With that task accomplished Nelson made his way down to the control room, curious as to how Chip was fitting back into his role. He needn’t have worried. As the admiral descended the stairwell he found both Lee and Chip bent over the plot table as Chip pointed out their newest course points. Lee was nodding. Upon hearing Nelson’s footsteps on the stairwell both men glanced up.
“Admiral,” Lee responded by way of greeting. “I’ve just ordered a course change and we’re making good time. Chip, what’s our ETA?”
Nelson knew perfectly well that Lee already knew the answer to that question. But it was also in Lee’s nature not to take center stage when it came to anything. If he could share credit for anything at all, he would.
Chip didn’t even glance up as he answered. “Just under two hours, running at our present speed.”
Nelson nodded. “Very well. Sharkey aware that things are about to get busy?”
Chip grinned as he glanced up. “Yes sir. He’s already putting together any gear we’ll need to dig out any possible survivors. He’s working up teams of diggers as we speak.”
“I should have known you’d have everything in hand. I will be in my cabin, let me know when we reach Marcanda.”
“Aye, sir,” was Lee’s automatic response as Nelson drifted back up the stairwell. When he was out of earshot, Chip finally voiced the question that had been on his mind since he learned about the cave-in.
“What do you think? Think this is a wild goose chase?”
Lee frowned. “I don’t know. If they found a pocket or an anti-chamber, it’s possible they could have survived. The question is—do they have breathable air to last them until we get there?”
“I suppose you’re going ashore,” Chip surmised.
“Somebody has to lead the rescue team. I’ll hand the conn off to you. Simple.”
Chip snorted. “Is that within the boundaries of my parole? What if the warden hears about it?”
Lee chuckled. “We’ll be at full stop and on the surface—I doubt much will happen under those circumstances. Besides, I need you to coordinate with the landing party. Doc might have to go ashore and he’ll need somebody he can trust to coordinate with his group and his Sickbay. I can’t think of a better person. You’ll be in the control room the whole time. Leave Jamie to me.”
In the end, Jamie had no problem learning that Lee was handing the conn off to Chip. “It will keep him occupied,” was the doctor’s cryptic reply. Even Nelson appeared amused but didn’t interfere as the first group of zodiacs headed for the island of Marcanda, the largest of a chain of small islands called the Marcandanese Archipelago.
Lee immediately took control of the extraction team. The few researchers left were exhausted from the last few hours of digging, using everything from shovels to spoons to dig their way though the rubble to reach their friends and coworkers. Jamieson, working with the group’s acting physician, set to work treating what injuries they could, mostly cuts and scraps and a few pulled muscles, as well as setting up a triage. In the meantime Lee and his crew took up where the tired researchers left off. Nelson had tracked down the senior-most researcher, who happened to be one of the representatives from NIMR.
Bob Thompson ran his hands though grimy dark hair and wiped the dust from his face. “The whole system just collapsed,” he explained as Nelson plied him with questions.
“Earthquake maybe?” Nelson asked. The two were standing outside one of the base camp’s tents. Thompson shrugged.
“We haven’t had time to correlate the data. That’s part of why we’re here, studying the fault lines. But since the collapse we haven’t had the time to check the seismograph for feedback.”
Nelson frowned. “What about Ragland?” he asked, referring to former Lieutenant Commander Nigel Ragland. “He’s got an engineering background; did he make any observations about the integrity of the system?”
Once more Thompson shook his head. “Not that I heard. Harrison had it in her head that there was something on this island that was connected in some way to some shipwreck but I didn’t pay too much attention. She found something down there, remains I think she said.”
“Remains of what?” Nelson asked, puzzled.
“Not what. Who. Some sailor, I think. She said it was the definitive clue to some wreck she was looking for. I’m a paleoseismologist. She was always carrying on about one shipwreck or another and I’m afraid I just didn’t pay enough attention. She claimed she found something and Lillian came back up for some collection bins. She and Ragland and three others were down there.
“Sam Dylan and Kevin Sanderson. They were looking at some quartz deposits. The other guy was from ECU, a microbiologist, studying bacteria in caves. He and Ragland were buddy-buddy the last few days. They had radios but after the cave-in we couldn’t make contact. We contacted our support ship but they were too far out to be of much help. The rest you know. “
“So you know for certain there are six people in that hole?” Nelson asked.
“Positive.” Thompson’s conviction was unwavering. Nelson simply nodded, reaching for his own radio on his belt. “Lee, this is Nelson, come in,” he began.
For a second there was only silence then Lee’s voice crackled over the air. “Crane here. Admiral, I won’t be afraid to tell you this is an unholy mess.”
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Do the best you can. I have confirmation that there are six missing.”
Nelson heard Lee groan. “We’ve actually found a chamber. Doesn’t look too stable at the moment.” There was a pause then Lee’s voice came back on. “Might not be a bad idea to alert Jamie. Kowalski and Mitch just found two bodies.”
Nelson closed his eyes. He’d been hoping for a better report than that. “Alright. Retrieve who you can. Don’t get in over your head. That system may be unstable yet. If it looks like it might come down I want you out of there. Understood? Over.”
Nelson could hear the reluctance in Lee’s voice as he acknowledged the order. “Understood. Crane out,” he said and the connection went quiet. Nelson just shook his head. He knew Lee would push the envelope to do what he thought was right. It didn’t mean that Harriman would be happy with the results. Lee took too many risks that Nelson didn’t approve of but tolerated because that was simply Lee’s nature. Nelson turned his attention to the exhausted Thompson. “Stay here and let the doctors look you over. My people have this and they’ll let me know the minute they find anything.”
Thompson sighed. “You honestly think that they have a chance down there? It’s been over ten hours.”
“Don’t underestimate the power of the human desire to survive. I’ve seen it at work. Let my men do their job. You just pray. “
Kowalski wormed his way through the narrow opening, keeping the skipper in his sights. It took some effort to get a big enough passage dug out for the team to get in. The skipper didn’t waste time. The second there was a hole big enough to squeeze through he dove in headfirst. The rest of them had little choice but to follow.
“Skipper,” Ski called out when Crane vanished through another hole.
“Through here Kowalski,” the captain’s voice echoed, reassuring the rating that so far things were going well.
Ski, followed by Mitch, squirmed through the hole their skipper had wormed through and were surprised to find themselves in a second chamber. The ceiling did not command much respect as dust and bits of rock continued to trickle down slowly. Already the skipper’s dark hair was coated in a layer of gray dust.
“Split up and do a careful search. I don’t want to leave anyone behind if I can help it.”
Rogers raked a hand through his brown curly hair and drew a finger across the wall of the cave. “This is some nasty stuff, skipper. You think the admiral would like a sample?” he asked.
Lee had to grin. “If we had some collection tubes, we might. Afraid I didn’t think of that,” Lee replied.
“Now, skipper. What would Mr. Morton say, going off unprepared like that?” Ski asked quietly. Only years of working closely with the man who had save their lives so many times let Ski be brave enough to comment. He wasn’t surprised when the skipper laughed.
“He’d have something to say for sure. What on earth is that stuff?” Lee raised the light up and illuminated the wall. The black substance was sticky and clung to Lee’s finger. It brought it up to his nose. The stuff was musty and smelled like…well, there was no describing what it smelled like. A combination of rotten meat and stinky feet? Lee wiped the stuff off on a cleaner space of cave wall and turned his focus on the search.
“Another body here, Skipper,” Rogers sang out from the far side of the cavern. Lee crossed the distance quickly.
“Dead or alive?”
“Sorry sir. This one is dead.” Rogers sadly dropped the limp wrist he’d been holding. Most of the left side of the man’s body was covered by rock and rumble. One eye was opened and stared ahead into nothing. The radio on the skipper’s belt chirped to life and the admiral called in, looking for an update. Crane reported what they had found so far while Ski, Rogers, and Mitch continued to search.
“Two bodies. I’m thinking this is more of a recovery and not a rescue,” Mitch commented as he dug around in the rubble. Overhead the ceiling creaked and groaned. All four men froze and waiting. The creaking stopped but they continued to move slowly.
“Skipper, I don’t think this cave is very safe,” Mitch whispered as if the sound of his voice might trigger another cave-in.
“Mitch, I won’t argue with you. Five more minutes and we pull out. We can’t risk it,” Lee ordered and turned his attention to a pile of rubble. He wasn’t expecting to find anything and when he uncovered the hand he felt his heart skip a beat. He certainly wasn’t expecting to find a pulse when he reached for the wrist. However it was there—thin and thready. “SKI!” Lee hissed and picked up the pace, scrambling to rake the rubble away. Within seconds the rest of the group was attacking the rubble and soon uncovered the filthy figure of a woman.
Lee barely got a look at her when the ceiling began to creak again. The dust and debris began falling all around them, the chunks becoming larger with each passing second. Lee heard the word “skipper” being yelled but then suddenly there was an earsplitting crash and the darkness closed in on Lee Crane.
Will Jamieson sighed and pulled the blanket up over the body—the fourth body to be pulled up out of the death trap of a hole the remaining researchers were calling a cave. He felt a presence hovering behind him and he didn’t have to turn to know who it was.
“Blunt force trauma. Numerous lacerations, massive bruising, postmortem, as far as I can tell,” Will answered the unspoken question. This time he turned and gave himself a mental pat on the back. He’d been right. The admiral stood at the entrance of the tent that had been used as the research group’s main base of operation and was now the triage. Or considering the lack of survivors, the morgue. “And before you ask, his neck was snapped. It was instant.”
Nelson sighed deeply. “He didn’t even have a chance to wish for rescue. Maybe it’s better this way. He didn’t suffer. Have you seen that mess?” Nelson asked with a glance backwards, in the general direction of the cave.
“No and thank you, I’d rather not go down in it. Caves are creepy enough without adding these sorts of complications. He noticed Nelson staring down at the covered body, his expression sad. “Admiral,” Jamie began but Nelson shook his head.
“I know what you’re going to say. I couldn’t have known. You’re right. How was I to know they’d suffer a disaster like this? But I picked these men and I have to explain to their families…” Nelson’s voice trailed off, as if he’d lost his train of thought. Jamie dropped a hand to his shoulder and gave his superior officer, his friend, a reassuring squeeze.
“They might yet find the others alive. Stranger things have happened. Don’t give up on human nature just yet. I’ve heard you say that enough to know it has meaning.”
Nelson didn’t say anything but instead turned back and headed out of the tent. So much death. He’d seen death before but this just somehow seemed pointless. Maybe if they’d put a little more speed behind them they could have gotten here earlier, maybe then they could have saved one person. Maybe. If. Seemed like his world was built on maybe’s and if’s. Nelson wasn’t a man who dealt with the intangible and nebulous. He liked facts, clear and simple. And the simple fact in this case was likely there were six people dead—four confirmed and two still missing. Nelson tried to hold out hope for the missing two but it was hard, having seen four mangled bodies.
The sounds of shouting from the mouth of the collapsed cave system grabbed Nelson’s attention. For a second he stood frozen before his brain registered what he was hearing. Someone was alive. They’d found a survivor. But there was something else.
“Jamie! I think they’ve got one!” Nelson shouted over his shoulder. From the tent the doctor emerged at an all out run. From another direction the acting physician for the group came pounding over drawn by Nelson’s call and the commotion that was growing louder by the second.
At the mouth of the cave a cluster of crewmen was gathered around a limp and bloodied figure of a young woman. Her shoulder length auburn hair was tangled and sticky with blood and she was coated in a layer of gray dust. The attending physician for the researchers sank down to her knees by the young woman’s side. Jamie’s attention was torn between the obviously seriously hurt young woman and the very unconscious figure of Lee Crane. Lee was flat on his back, eyes closed. He had a split lower lip and a cut over his right eye still seeped blood, trickling slowly backward toward his ear as gravity pulled on the crimson thread. Jamie sank to his knees by Lee’s side. Dr. Marcum was already working on the other woman, leaving Jamie free to concentrate on his CO for the moment. “What can you tell me, Ski?” Jamieson asked.
“Part of the ceiling came down as we were digging her out,” Ski said with a nod to the unconscious woman. “She was nearly completely buried and we were so deep in the cave we couldn’t get any reception. The skipper got clocked pretty good. Rogers and I got him out of there while Mitch pulled her free.”
Jamie efficiently went through the motions, taking Lee’s vitals, noting heart and pulse rate. Everything appeared to be normal. Lee probably just ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, as usual. As the doctor worked, Lee began to come around, rolling his head back and forth on the ground. Jamie decided to err on the side of caution. When it came to Lee, it was always better to assume the worse and backtrack later. “Ski, you and Rogers get a stretcher and get the skipper back to Sickbay.”
“Mmmm fine,” moaned Lee in protest.
Jamie grinned. “Sure you are. I only understood one word of the two-word statement, so you’re fifty percent functioning. How many of me are you seeing, Skipper?” he asked.
Lee groaned. “One too many,” he replied.
“Nice try. Ski, lock and load. He’s not to leave Sickbay until I have a chance to pronounce sentence,” Jamie said as Lee’s still woozy eyes peered up at him. Leaving the rating to get Lee onto a stretcher—an exercise the young seaman had entirely too much practice with—Jamie turned his attention to the young woman. “Donna?” he asked the group’s acting physician.
The woman was working quickly, taking vitals and accessing the damage. “Broken right leg, without a doubt,” she said without preamble. Jamie’s eyes darted down, the sharp intake of breath the only indicator that he saw the blood-smeared bone protruding from mid calf. Immediately Jamieson began calculating treatment and the risk for infection. As he worked he noticed the woman’s breathing, labored and harsh. “Ribs? Sounds like she’s having trouble breathing.”
Donna shook her head. “Impossible to know at this time. I am guessing a cracked rib at the least,” she replied, feeling for damage along the woman’s ribcage. “I can’t begin to guess what other damage she has. I can’t treat her here,” she ended.
“I’ll take her. We can treat her aboard Seaview.”
Donna got to her feet, following Jamieson’s example. “She needs a complete work up. I don’t like her breathing and I’m willing to bet the house she has a concussion.”
“No problem. Seaview’s equipped. Trust me. Admiral?” Jamieson called out to his employer who was already organizing crewmen to take her back to Sickbay.
“I know the drill, Jamie,” Nelson replied grimly. “Might want to check in and give Chip a heads-up. He’ll freak when Ski and Rogers show up with Lee on a stretcher.”
“Leave the dirty work to me,” Jamieson grumbled
“It’s called ‘delegation’,” remarked Nelson ever-so casually. Jamie ignored him as he snatched his own walkie off his hip and keyed the channel to Seaview.
“Jamieson to Seaview.”
“Seaview. Morton here. Go ahead, Doc.” Chip’s answer was quick and brisk.
“Chip, we’re taking on a passenger and Ski’s bringing in the skipper,” Jamieson said and waited for the explosion.
“What happened?” came Chip’s slightly breathless question, although calmer than Jamie expected.
“Relax, Chip. He’s in one piece. Mostly just stunned I think. I’ll have a chance to better examine him once he’s in Sickbay. Which is where he is going. No side trips to engineering or his cabin. No status updates until I can determine just how bad he got his bell rung.”
“Don’t worry Doc. He’s got a one way ticket,” Morton snarled. Despite the situation, Jamie had to smile. “I need to talk to Frank.”
“Transferring you to sickbay,” Morton replied and there was a slight pause as Sparks made the switch.
“Sickbay,” Frank said crisply.
“Frank, get ready for the Lee Crane Special,” Jamie explained. He could imagine the smile creeping over the corpsman’s face. The situation was serious but Jamie was pretty sure Lee was just stunned and he didn’t want to alarm anyone.
“X-rays?” Frank asked.
“Do a preliminary work up on him and put him in a bunk IN Sickbay. Also stand by to do a complete work up on a second patient. I anticipate surgery but until I get pictures I won’t know what we’re doing yet.”
“Yes sir, everything will be ready when you get here. Blood type?”
Jamie shot Donna a look. “You know her blood type?”
Donna shook her head, watching as two of Seaview’s crewmen lifted the stretcher with the auburn-haired woman and headed in the direction of the zodiacs. “No idea. You’ll have to test.”
“Type not known, be ready to type her when she’s brought in. In the meantime check the stores for Type O,” Jamieson said to Frank.
“Yes, sir, on it.”
“Good job, Frank. I’ll meet you shortly.” Jamieson signed off and nodded to Nelson. “That’s my cue. I have patents. I’ll send Davenport ashore and he can coordinate with Donna here,” Jamie said, naming the newest corpsman aboard Seaview.
Nelson nodded. “A good plan. Jamie, take care of them,”
“Well, I wasn’t planning on leaving them on the front step,” Jamieson said, trying to inject a little humor. Nelson smiled weakly and Jamieson turned and jogged after the retreating crewmen. It dawned on him then that he had no idea what the woman’s name was. “Donna,” Jamieson stopped, calling out to the other doctor. She turned in response to his voice. “What’s her name?”
“Serena Harrison, the group’s marine archaeologist.”
Jamieson gave her a thumbs-up and picked up his pace. He had a feeling that, between Lee and Harrison, his sickbay was about to get a workout.
“Special deck detail, report topside. Sickbay, standby.” Lt. Cmdr. Chip Morton spoke into the mike, taking command of not just his life again but of the boat while Lee was on shore. It felt good to be control again, to not have to hide from some shadowy figure who wanted something he couldn’t even remember.
The deck detail arrived, scurrying about to get ready for the two boats they knew were approaching. Chip stayed out of their way, watching the horizon for the approach of the boats from the island. The two dots on the water gradually grew larger until he could make out the figures aboard. Each boat was crewed by two men but Chip knew each boat carried three.
The boats grew closer and carefully sidled up to the side of the great submarine, lines tossed over the side to anchor them and bring them closer. Chip edged closer, looking down into one of the boats. Commander Lee Crane lay flat on his back, looking up at him with a look of exasperation. Lee was covered in mud and gray dust, looking like he’d crawled through the bowels of the earth and back again.
“Not so spiffy looking, Skipper,” Chip teased. He took a step back to allow the deck detail access and help get the injured topside. He could hear Lee grumbling although the actual words where lost to the sound of the waves against the hull and the boats bumping gently.
Jamie was in the other boat, snapping out orders and barking instructions. Chip wasn’t sure what to expect so he cautiously approached as they pulled the backboard up. A mass of tangled red hair was draped over the edge of the board. Chip drew closer as they settled the board on the deck.
The first glimpse of the badly injured woman sent shockwaves of recognition through his system. A redheaded woman with jade green eyes. She smiled at him…felt her hand on his bare chest, her fingers moving up his neck, over his jaw, across his lips… As suddenly as the flash of memory appeared it was gone, disjointed from reality, set apart by the fact that it didn’t seem to fit anywhere, like a lone puzzle piece. He didn’t even know this woman! But something about this one had triggered something. Morton just wasn’t sure what it was.
The doctor happened to be watching the exec, saw the vacant look that flashed through Morton’s blue eyes, the way he froze as the memory held him in a vice-like grip. All the color drained from his face, leaving him ghostly and pale. “Chip?” Jamie asked urgently, unsure of what had caused the blond’s reaction.
Chip jerked up, his eyes wide. They darted from the unconscious woman on the deck to the doctor and he worked his mouth, trying to force the words out and not making much sense. Finally he managed, “Nothing,” before shaking his head.
Jamie scowled. He didn’t have time to persist and Morton knew it. “We’ll talk about this later,” he warned.
Chip blinked. “There’s nothing to talk about,” he said, stepping back as the stretcher with Lee went past him, into the hatch. Chip turned his attention back to the woman, trying to figure out why she felt familiar to him.
She, like Lee, was covered in a layer of thick gray dust, her neck and shoulders a network of scratches and shallow cuts. Her right leg was a bloody mess of tissue and bone. She appeared deeply unconscious and Chip was grateful for that. Broken bones were no fun and a compound fracture like that would be excruciating. “She gonna be alright?” Chip asked as the older man leaned down and did a quick vitals check.
“If I have anything to do with it. She’s got extensive bruising, and we think internal injuries, besides the obvious external injuries. She was in the cave-in and is damn lucky to be alive.”
“Is that what happened to Lee?”
“Lee will be fine in a few hours. Got his bell rung pretty good. A few hours rest is all he needs. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a job to do,” Jamie said
Chip stepped back to allow the crew to gently pick up the stretcher. Lee was already on his way to sickbay and Doc was once more barking out instructions. Chip couldn’t help but wonder had she known that the cave was unstable? What could have been so important that she would have risked it, if she had known? He felt a grin tug at his mouth, thinking how like the admiral it was to venture into an unstable cave system in pursuit of some scientific wonder. The lengths some people would go to in order to get what they want, he thought.
He needed to get below. The admiral was still ashore and Larry Davenport, the new corpsman, was supposed to go back. Until Nelson got back and Lee was back on his feet, Chip still had command of Seaview.
And it felt good to be back.
With Seaview stable and the rescue wrapping up, Chip finally found time to make his way down to sickbay. Lee was probably fine but that big-brother instinct was taking over and Morton needed to see his friend for himself. The watch knew exactly what kind of bond existed between the two and had been expecting the exec to hand off temporary command to Lieutenant O’Brian and head for Sickbay but not without some trepidation. He wasn’t sure what had triggered that lone flash of memory and he wasn’t sure he was ready to deal with another memory that had no place in his carefully organized life.
Chip found a carefully orchestrated dance in sickbay as Lee was fussed over and Frank was busy in the back, pulling a curtain around for privacy. Jamie, bent over Lee, was barking out instructions to Frank. “Full panel, Frank. I can’t fix what I can’t see,” he was saying. At some point the cut over Lee’s right eye had been stitched, the black threads in stark contrast to Lee’s olive-toned complexion.
Frank was more than capable of guessing what Jamieson needed. He emerged from the back and walked to the small office with something in his hands. A small tray sat on the desk and into it he dropped what Chip surmised to be the young woman’s jewelry: her earrings, a ring, and a necklace. Then Frank vanished into the back again. Curiosity was eating at Chip but his worry over Lee won out.
“You can stop staring,” Lee grumped as Jamie flicked the small penlight into each eye.
“I’m not staring. I’m observing,” Morton replied tartly.
Lee grumbled something not so polite under his breath and Jamie chuckled. “You’re still staying for a few hours.”
Lee glared at the doctor. “If I’m here, who’s going to watch over the vanishing wonder over there?” he asked with a glance at Morton.
“You let me deal with Mr. Morton. You’re not going anywhere for the next few hours. Just lie back down and close your eyes. Frank, let’s get the skipper out of those grimy fatigues.”
“It’s just a knot,” Lee continued to grouse, knowing this was a losing battle but obligated to play the game.
“You just admitted you’re a knot-head,” said Chip, now leaning against the bunk support.
“I thought I left you in charge,” Lee shot back as Frank stepped in close. The dust and grime encrusted clothes were pulled off and disposed of in the nearest hamper, leaving Lee bare-chested and wearing just his skivvies. With a damp washcloth, Frank worked to get the worst of the grime off Lee’s face and hands. Meanwhile Jamie had vanished into the back only to return as Frank was just finishing getting Lee cleaned up. Jamie threw Lee one of those looks that sent most men scurrying for their lives.
“Eyes on me,” he ordered and was satisfied when Lee focused his attention on him. “Give me three hours and I’ll cut you loose. Deal?”
Lee jumped at the offer—anything to get out of Sickbay! “Deal,” he said and leaned back into the bunk. Frank pulled the blankets up over Lee’s lean frame, aware that the skipper hated sickbay and swore it was colder in here than the rest of the boat. He was already shivering lightly as the corpsman tucked the blankets in around him. Jamie then turned his attention to the blond. “You,” he began poking a finger into Morton’s shoulder, “will chat for a few minutes then you are going to your cabin. There you will lose the uniform, shower, redress in something not khaki, and you will crawl into your bunk. Understood?”
“Jamie…” There was a definite whine to Chip’s tone that did not impress the doctor one bit.
“Commander…” Jamie warned. “Work with me here and I won’t show up unannounced at your cabin door for an explanation for what I saw earlier.”
Chip sighed. It was a trick Jamie used much like a mother breaking out first and middle name to emphasize she knew the child in question had done something wrong. There was no arguing with the doctor once he started using rank. And Chip wasn’t too keen on trying to explain what had happened on deck when he wasn’t even sure himself. “Can I have ten minutes?” Chip asked, trying to look innocent.
Jamie scowled but nodded. “Ten minutes. Don’t make me have to remind you. You won’t like my reminders.”
Chip grunted. “Yeah, they’re sharp and pointy and loaded with sleep-juice. You don’t play fair.”
“Who’s playing?” Jamie asked before vanishing in the back of sickbay, now divided into two by a large curtain. With a female patient, Jamie was making her stay as private as possible. Just as well. Chip wasn’t sure he was up to another glimpse. He was still trying to process that odd flash of memory that simply did not belong. He moved in closer and grabbed a nearby chair. “Playing Mole Man?” he asked.
Lee rolled his eyes. “Those caves were unstable. They had no business being in there. Somebody should have seen those caves were a disaster waiting to happen,” he said darkly.
“Nothing to be done about it now,” Chip said.
“Did they find anyone else alive?”
Chip shook his head. “No. Dr. Harrison was the only one. They recovered another body—Commander Ragland. Davenport and the group’s doctor, Dr. Marcum, said he died instantly. Crushed skull.”
Lee winced at the bluntness of Chip’s report. “Nasty. Any word on the survivor?”
Chip shook his head. “They’re still working on her. Jamie hasn’t had time to work up a report yet. You should just lay back and rest. If you don’t make a token effort you know Jamie’s gotta fuss.”
“He’ll fuss anyway. But you’re right. I suppose a few hours won’t kill me, even if I do Feel FINE!” The last two words were pitched loud enough to carry past the curtain. Lee heard a distinct snort and a slightly muffled voice answered, “Sorry. Busy right now. I don’t have time for fairy tales at the moment. Mr. Morton, you’d better be wrapping things up.”
Chip got to his feet but not before sticking his tongue out in the direction of the doctor’s voice. Lee grinned but he wasn’t ready to take a nap just yet. “Chip, what happened up there? What did you see?” he asked softly.
Something akin to fear, an expression Lee seldom saw in Chip’s eyes, surfaced for a second before disappearing back into those blue depths. “I don’t know. It’s like…I knew her or something. But I don’t. I swear I’ve never met her before. I’d remember that.”
Lee narrowed his eyes. “What about Peru?”
The question sent Morton back into the chair, dropping like a rock. “Oh god,” he breathed. “I never thought of that.” Chip glanced back toward the closed curtain. What if…was it even possible? Could he have met her before? What were the odds? He shook his head, clearing the cobwebs and coming back to the present. He found Lee staring at him. “What?”
In reply, Lee shook his head. “One of these days you’ll remember what happened to you.”
“Well, it’s not today. And I’m not the one with a bunk in sickbay.”
“That can be remedied very quickly, Commander,” Jamie’s voice floated from the back.
Chip rolled his eyes and got to his feet. “Just relax,” he said to Lee. “You’ll probably be out before we sail. Right now the admiral is wrapping up some loose ends. O’Brian has the conn and he’ll pass off to Moore in two hours.”
“Good. Maybe I won’t miss everything.”
With a shake of his head and a promise that Moore knew what he was doing, Chip vanished before Jamie could threaten him further. Lee settled back and closed his eyes, surprising himself as he drifted off. It wasn’t true sleep though. He was aware of Jamie and Frank in the back of Sickbay. He could catch snatches of conversation and comments from time to time that indicated stabilizing the young woman wasn’t as easy as it should be.
Eventually Lee drifted into true sleep, a sleep studded by odd, dark dreams. Ski’s voice seemed to echo his name hollowly and the dark caverns of the cave they were searching were suddenly flooded with a tidal wave of seawater. The rush swept through the cave, throwing his men off their feet, washing them down the black tunnels. Lee tried to reach out to them but they rushed past him, their call of ‘skipper!’ following them into the darkness. Unable to stay on his feet, Lee was picked up and washed away with the rest of the rescue team, thrown into a wall as the crest of the wave crashed around a bend in the cave. As suddenly as the floodwaters appeared they were gone, leaving Lee lying in mud up to his knees. The bodies of the rescue team were lying in the mud all around him. Only there were more bodies than just the four men of the rescue team. Bodies dressed in green fatigues, bodies dressed in blue, dressed in red, dressed in khaki…
His breath catching in his throat, Lee crawled through the mud trying to reach the nearest body. Somehow Lee knew who it was before he grabbed the shoulder and rolled the body onto its back. Chip’s limp form rolled in the mud and suddenly his eyes opened, but instead of the brilliant blue orbs Lee was so used to seeing, Morton’s eyes were solid white, like the eyes of a long dead fish.
Morton’s voice echoed in Lee’s head and Crane scrambled to his feet, staring at the body of his friend as the mud seemed to ooze up, slowly covering Chip’s body. “NO!” Lee screamed, lunging for Chip’s body to keep it from vanishing under the mud. His hands closed around Chip’s arm and Lee pulled, trying to draw the body up out of the mud. Out of the darkness a voice began to rise, beginning as a low whisper, so low Lee couldn’t understand the words. Then the voice grew and Lee recognized the timbre of Admiral Nelson’s voice, calling his name…Lee. Lee. Leeeeeeeeeeeee
With a jolt and a gasp, Lee Crane snapped his eyes open to find the concerned face of the admiral hovering over him. The second thing that Lee realized was that he was holding onto Nelson’s arm with both hands. Like in his dream. Quickly Lee released his grip and pulled back his hands, running them through his tangled hair.
“Lee? Awake now?” Nelson asked with concern.
Lee sucked in another breath, feeling his heart beginning to slow its frantic beating. The nightmare was fast fading and there were only snatches to haunt Lee in the harsh light of Sickbay. He rose up, Nelson grabbing another pillow from the top bunk and pushing it behind Lee for more support. Lee finally trusted his voice to volunteer a shaking answer. “I think so.”
“How are you feeling?” Nelson asked quietly.
“Well, the head isn’t pounding anymore.”
Nelson snorted. “If you were to be believed, your head was never pounding to start with.”
Lee tried not to sigh. “It wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle,” he said.
“I hear voices out there,” came Jamieson’s voice from his office alcove. Lee glanced around to see the doctor gazing calmly back at him.
“I didn’t wake him,” Nelson reassured the doctor. Jamie looked unconvinced until Lee intervened.
“I woke up on my own,” he said but failed to mention the dream that sparked it. Lee didn’t move as Jamie walked over and reached for a wrist. Lee sat quietly, waiting for the doctor to finish. Finally Jamie chuckled.
“Well, considering that I asked for three hours and you gave me four and a half…”
“Four and a half? Why didn’t you wake me?” Lee exclaimed in shock, ignoring the amused admiral at his side.
Jamieson was unperturbed by Lee’s outburst. “Because I’m a doctor. You need the rest. Obviously your body agreed with me even if your hard head didn’t.”
“What if something had gone wrong?” Lee snarled as he scrambled to his feet.
“It didn’t,” the admiral reassured, “Calm down, Lee. Everything is under control, or have you forgotten that I used to command a submarine?” Nelson asked with a wry smile.
Jamie coughed to cover his own laughter and Lee ducked his head shyly. He glanced upward at Nelson through dark lashes, aware he’d crossed a fine line. Not enough to infuriate his occasionally temperamental boss but it was enough. “No, sir,” Lee replied meekly.
Nelson chuckled. “See that you don’t. Now, since you’re awake and, I take it, back on duty…” Nelson cast the doctor a look and Jamieson nodded. “You can head to the control room and set us a course for home. We’re done here.”
Lee glanced back to Jamieson. “The survivor?”
“Dr. Harrison is resting. I’ve got her stabilized but she’s going to need more extensive surgery once she gets stateside.”
“How bad is she? If she’s that bad, shouldn’t we air lift her out? In the Flying Sub we can have her back in the States in a few hours,” Lee said.
Jamieson nodded. “Normally I’d say yes. But she needs to be still and warm. I can’t take the chance of jostling her around in transfer. She’s safer here for the moment. If her condition gets worse then I’ll consider transferring her but at the moment she’s fine.”
Lee nodded his understanding. “I’ll fly her myself if you need to move her. Admiral, I’ll be in the control room,”
“I’d like to see you heading for your cabin in a few hours?” Will made the statement a question to which Lee simply scowled. Frank arrived with a plain white robe and Lee slipped it on, not eager to be roaming the halls of the sub in nothing but his skivvies.
“I’ve already had a five hour nap,” he grumbled.
“Four and a half actually. Another five or six won’t hurt you in the least. At least Chip didn’t argue with me. I suppose it’s too much to ask for a little cooperation.”
“I’ll see to it that he turns in at a decent hour. Go on, Lee, before our doctor changes his mind,” Nelson encouraged with a nod of his head.
“Yes sir, I don’t have to be told twice,” Lee said and vanished into the hall, leaving Nelson chuckling even as Jamie shook his head.
“Like a little kid who’s been told his time-out is over. Some days I wonder about him,” Jamieson grumbled but there was a smile in his words. He made his way quietly over to Harrison’s bunk, taking a few minutes to check her vitals. He could feel Nelson’s eyes on him as he worked. “She’s stable, admiral. You heard me tell Lee.”
“I know. Somehow I feel responsible though,” Nelson said.
Jamie turned. “And how are you responsible for a freak cave accident?”
Nelson sighed. “I made the recommendations concerning Ragland. I was asked if I thought he was a good match for the group. I knew about his work with ground penetrating radar. I thought he’d have better judgment than to lead a group of civilians into an obviously unstable cave.” Nelson inclined his head slightly to the sleeping women. The set of her mouth, the structure of her features, maybe it was the way her long auburn hair seemed to pool under her head and neck, something about her touched a memory—a very distant and long-buried memory. Nelson dug and pulled, trying to pin point why she seemed familiar but it stayed just beyond his reach. He realized he was staring and quickly shook his head to clear his thoughts.
The doctor appeared to have not noticed Nelson’s wandering attention span. “Some coffee maybe?” Jamie asked, satisfied with Harrison’s vitals. Nelson scoffed.
“It’s still decaf. Maybe as long as I don’t think about it,” Nelson acquiesced and the two walked back to the small alcove. There was a tray on the edge with a few pieces of jewelry. “Are these hers?” Nelson asked. He stirred the collection of jewelry curiously.
The room telescoped as he focused on a silver dolphin pendent strung on a silver chain. He’d seen that pendent before. It had been over thirty years since he’d seen it last. Surely this wasn’t the same necklace? He gently picked the chain up and held the pendent in the palm of his hand. He flipped it over and felt his heart skip a beat as he read the very faint inscription on the backside: Who hath desired the Sea... Nelson turned back to the young woman but she wasn’t moving and she certainly wasn’t ready to deal with his questions. There had to be a sensible explanation.
“Admiral, did you hear me?” Jamie’s voice finally cut through Nelson’s daze.
“Hmm? Oh. Sorry, doc. I was just thinking. What…what were you saying?”
Jamie tilted his head to the side slightly and studied the admiral. “Just that yes, these are all hers. Admiral, are you all right? You seem a little distracted.”
Nelson dropped the necklace back into the tray. His hand shook with a slight tremor and he jammed both hands into his trouser pockets before the doctor could see. “It’s been a long day,” Nelson responded evasively.
“All the more reason you should be heading for your cabin. Once you steer that workaholic captain of yours in the direction of his,” Jamieson suggested.
“You’ll keep me updated on her condition?”
“You know I will. She’s stable and she healthy. I don’t expect any problems. Just get us home as soon as you can.”
“Working on that, doc,” Nelson laughed as he headed out of Sickbay and down to the Control room. He found things quiet as the evening watch was settling in. Lee was at the plot table and for a second Nelson missed Chip’s figure at his side. Then he remembered that Chip was still on light duty and had been threatened with pain of death if he didn’t turn in early. At the sound of his footsteps Lee glanced up but his expression was less than pleasant.
“Lee, what’s wrong?” Nelson asked curiously.
“Admiral, you’re not going to like this. NCIS has gotten wind of this and they’re handling it as a death investigation.”
Nelsons let out a deep breath. “Why on earth does NCIS see the need to get involved?”
Lee shrugged and planted his hands on the plot table for support. “They want to investigate Commander Ragland. They wouldn’t disclose what they wanted over the radio but they promised that their agent would brief us on all the details.”
Nelson’s eyes narrowed. “Their agent. They expect us to take on an agent?” he growled.
“I’m afraid so. They want to interview Dr. Harrison while her memory is still fresh,” Lee explained. He wasn’t ready when his friend and mentor exploded.
“This isn't a cruise ship! Can't it wait till we get back to port?” the admiral snarled.
Lee shook his head, running a hand through his dark hair. “I asked them if we could meet their agent at port but they want to start an investigation as soon as possible.”
Nelson wanted desperately to slam his fist into something but managed to rein his emotions in. Instead he jammed his hands into his pockets and gave in to the insistent need to pace, walking back and forth in front of the great windows. “Did they say who they're sending? Because if it's that moron DiNozzo I will personally launch him out of a torpedo tube,” he growled.
“No, sir, I asked. It's not DiNozzo. We're picking up Special Agent Morton.”
Nelson stopped pacing and spun to face Lee. “Your inflection tells me there is a connection between their Morton and our Morton.”
Lee nodded. “His sister, Gwendolyn. I’ve already made arrangements and had Cabin A assigned to her. Since we can't get out of this, we might as well make the best of it and help them as much as possible.”
“Good thinking. The sooner they get their answers, the sooner we get rid of them. Let's get ready for our visitor then. Wouldn't want NCIS to think we're an unfriendly bunch,” Nelson grumbled. He considered something then cast the taller man a wry smile. “You’ve met Chip’s sisters, I take it?”
Lee’s natural coloring made it hard to note if he blushed but in this case there was a definite rose cast creeping up his neck and ears. “Yes sir. I’ve spend a good number of holidays at Chip’s house.”
“Gwendolyn...,” Nelson rolled the name around as if tasting it. “His second sister, I believe.”
“Yes, sir. Joined NCIS right out of MIT.”
“The Morton family seems to produce a number of public servants. Well, let’s make nice since we don’t have much of a choice. I’ll tell Doc you’re needed here for a few more hours yet. You, um, have told Chip his sister will be joining us?”
Lee ducked his head. “Chip was asleep when I checked on him. I didn’t want to wake him.”
“I see.” A ghost of a smile flirted along the edges of the admiral’s mouth. “Well. Alert the crew then. Warn the chief we’re taking on a female passenger and I want everyone on their best behavior.” Nelson spun on his heel and headed back up the stairwell. Lee sighed. That went over better than expected. As much as he liked Chip’s sisters, he’d never had to deal with any of them on a professional level. Lee could only hope this went over quickly and without incident.
“Absolutely not. NCIS, CIA, FBI, IRS, I don’t care. I’m not waking Harrison up so the over-inflated agent of some random alphabet soup agency can waltz in here and undo my work. Dr. Harrison needs quiet and calm and no disturbances. I won’t allow it,” Jamieson snarled, showing a characteristic protective streak for the patient under his care.
“Easy, Jamie. Nobody is going to make you do something you deem medically unreasonable. At some point Dr. Harrison is bound to wake up and we’ll determine then if she’s able to answer questions,” Nelson soothed, trying to calm ruffled feathers.
Jamieson wasn’t quite ready to calm down. “Question her indeed. Admiral, that young woman has a concussion. The chances of her remembering what happened are slim to none. Not to mention both bones of her lower right leg were snapped like twigs, she has a dislocated right shoulder and numerous broken and bruised ribs. Keeping her sedated so the pain is tolerable is the least of my worries.”
Nelson sighed. “You can explain that to Agent Morton when she gets here.”
Jamieson stared for a second. “Admiral, did you say Morton?”
“One of Chip’s sisters. Seems she’s an NCIS agent.”
Jamie rolled his eyes. “Two Mortons? I hope she has more sense to stay out of trouble than her brother. Still, I won’t play favorites. If I don’t think Harrison is up to answering a load of questions, I’ll toss Agent Morton out in the corridor, family connections notwithstanding.”
“And I’ll support you. I just thought you needed a heads-up. I’ll hold her off till tomorrow and we can reevaluate things then. Sound fair enough?” Nelson asked.
Jamieson paused and then nodded. “For the moment. I still can’t guarantee when and if she’ll be able to handle questioning. I’ve had to increase the oxygen she’s on. She’s developed a small respiratory issue but I think it’s from breathing that cave dust for so long. Not uncommon in accidents of this nature.”
“Good. I’ll handle Agent Morton when she comes aboard. Lee won’t be turning in until she arrives and I promise that when she does, I’ll pack them both off to their cabins and then turn in myself.”
Jamieson grinned as he sat back down behind his desk. “See that you do. Lee’s little nap might fool him into thinking he can stand watch for another twenty-four hours but he’s already stressed beyond words. He and Chip need all the rest they can get and this little side trip hasn’t helped any.”
Nelson leaned against the wall, watching the young woman. She just looked familiar. Nelson mentally shook his head. It was just his imagination. The necklace was just a coincidence. It had to be. There was no other explanation for it. “Will, how old is Dr. Harrison?” he asked.
Jamieson arched an eyebrow but reached for a manila folder on the edge of his desk. “Thankfully I was able to get her medical records faxed over from Pitt County Memorial. There are a few blank spots in it but for the most part everything is well documented.” Will flipped the folder open. “Dr. Serena Harrison just turned thirty-two years old,” he said.
Nelson was silent, doing the math in his head. Then he remembered the ring in the tray on Will’s desk. He reached for it, surprised that his fingers would cooperate. It was a woman’s gradation studies ring with a green stone in the center. One side had her three initials—SLH—while the other side was etched with the words Nautical Archaeology. “This must be her birthstone then. Peridot for August?”
Jamie flipped a few pages over “Here it is. August, that’s right. Why?”
Nelson shrugged and dropped the ring back into the tray. “Just curious. She seems young to hold a doctorate.”
Jamie grinned. “And Lee looks young for a commander. Some people are just gifted, Admiral,” the doctor reminded Nelson as he inclined his head to take in the room, suggesting the entire submarine.
Nelson snorted. “I stand corrected then.” The admiral let out a breath. “You just continue to do for Dr. Harrison what you think best. I have some things I need to look over before Agent Morton comes aboard. I’ll be in my cabin if you need me,” Nelson said.
“Alright. If anything changes, you’ll be the first to know.”
With a nod, Nelson walked quietly out of Sickbay. Jamie got to his feet again, doing another check on the young woman’s respiration. He was less than happy but he was doing the best he could for her at the moment. He could always intubate her if necessary but he wasn’t ready to take that step just yet. However that would solve the problem of her being questioned…Will shook his head. He’d play nice for the moment and would hold onto that idea if this Agent Morton proved to be difficult.
Nelson stopped briefly by the control room to let Lee know he’d be in his cabin and to inform him when their guest arrived. Lee agreed and turned his attention to simply waiting, trying not to distract Lieutenant Moore. While it wasn’t uncommon for Lee to drop in during the late watch, and considering the past few days, everyone’s nerves were still slightly on edge and a stressed commanding officer in their midst made everyone glance over their shoulders. But Lee restricted himself to the nose for the most part, leaving Lt. Sean Moore to conduct his watch as he usually did. On one occasion Lee wandered toward the plot table, checking their course and asking about their present position.
From time to time he’d scratch absently at his arm, or his waist, right around the waist band of his uniform. He’d changed into a clean uniform before coming down, not taking the time for a shower. He regretted it, still feeling grimy and dirty. He seemed to have developed a very light rash on his arms. He dismissed it, blaming it on goosebumps since sickbay was cold enough to store meat. He nodded his approval of Moore so far and wandered back to the nose, perching on the edge of the table to watch the sea glide past.
Two hours passed before the Sea King chopper finally came into radar contact. Moore ordered the boat to surface and then called the special deck detail topside to assist with bringing the passenger aboard. Lee glanced at this watch. Close to sixteen hours had passed since they had gotten word that there had been an accident. Agent Morton must be one tired woman if she had come all the way from Washington. He waited, perched on the edge of the table. He considered going topside himself but he decided against it. He wasn’t sure how he felt about Chip’s sister being aboard. He was still trying to work around his last meeting with her.
“Passenger safely aboard. Chopper is away,” came the call from topside.
Lee stayed in the nose while Moore handled the transfer. “Very well. Clear the deck. Have our passenger escorted to the control Room at once. Engineering, prepare to flood ballast tanks and get underway.” Moore handled the situation as calmly as Lee could have hoped.
Lee could feel and hear the activity around him. The sub almost seemed to be gathering herself, as if she was aware that her keepers were healthy and whole and she was doing everything to make them proud of her. Lee rested an affectionate hand on one of the nearby support struts, as if trying to seek some kind of connecting with the gray lady.
“Engineering standing by, sir,” came the confirmation of Moore’s order.
“Very well,” Moore answered quickly.
Lee was watching the ladder. The deck detail was coming back aboard and a familiar female figure moved among them. “Welcome aboard Seaview, Agent Morton,” he said with a smile as the woman focused on him.
Her full name was Gwendolyn Dawn Morton and Lee had first met her when she was just fourteen and he was nineteen. His mother was in Russia on a long film shoot and couldn’t make it home for Christmas that year. His plans to simply stay behind for Christmas break were tossed merrily out the window when Chip found out.
One of Lee’s first lessons about his roommate was just how mule-headed Morton could be when he got something in his head. Chip was bound and determined to drag Lee home with him for the holidays, kicking and screaming if necessary. Lee found it was easier to pound bricks with a stick than argue with his roommate. Lee was an only child; his father had been killed on duty when he was fourteen. His mother tried her best to be there when Lee needed her but the demands of her job meant she spent long stretches of time away from home. Until Lee went off to the academy, his father’s widowed sister, Mary, had moved in to help with things while Lee’s mother was working. Aunt Mary had never had any children and her confrontation with a half-grown and occasionally moody teenage boy had been something of a culture shock. Aunt Mary didn’t approve of Lee’s choice for his future. She tried throughout his high school years to convince him to pick a less—demanding—career. Meeting Chip’s family had been a wake up call. No one questioned Lee’s choice of a future career.
Chip had introduced his sisters and Lee still remembered the skinny little girl with glasses who rolled her eyes when Chip called her Gwendolyn. “It’s Wendy, you big dip,” she had said, flounced upstairs and vanished into her room for the next few hours. Ever since that first visit Chip would harass him, saying that Wendy had a crush on him.
The woman that stood before him wearing a white blouse, black slacks, matching blazer and sensible leather shoes looked nothing like the skinny little girl he remembered. He was just as shocked now as when he’d last seen her in Chip’s hospital room so many weeks ago. Her eyes were the same sky-blue as her brother’s and her long white-blond hair was braided and pinned into a coil at the base of her neck. She had two bulging bags with her and a laptop case slung over one shoulder. She smiled up at Lee.
“After sitting across from me at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, I think you can drop the ‘agent’ and just call me Wendy. It’s gonna get confusing if we have to resort to last names, don’t you think?” she asked with a gleam in her eye.
“Probably,” he replied with a grin. He scratched absently at his collarbone. “Franklin, take Agent Morton’s bags to guest cabin A. Also notify the admiral that our passenger has arrived.” Lee indicated that Wendy should follow him forward. She passed off the laptop as a crewman picked up her packs and headed for the stairwell. She then followed Lee forward.
In the nose, Lee had the pleasure of seeing her eyes widen. Feeling like showing off a little, Lee shot Moore a quick look. Sean smiled at the skipper and gave him a quick thumbs-up sign before snatching up the mike. “Engineering, prepare to dive. Blow all ballasts, take her down to ninety feet, all ahead two-thirds.”
The control room came alive with the sounds of his orders being carried out. Acknowledgments flew back and forth as all systems came up to ready the submarine for its departure below the waves. Under his feet, Lee could feel the vibrations of the submarine, almost eager to carry out her master’s commands. There was the sensation of sinking as the sea began to rise, climbing over the windows. Lee watched Wendy, enraptured as the waves began breaking over the windows. The sub continued to descend into the blue-green sea, finally reaching the ordered depth of ninety feet. With the desired depth achieved, the submarine began moving forward. There was no motion that the average person could detect but Lee was so attuned to the great vessel he knew when she was moving and when she was at a dead stop. He could tell by the vibrations, by resting a hand on a bulkhead, how fast they were going. He could tell when she changed direction or if she were on the surface or cruising at depth.
“Any lady with her sights set on you is going to have some stiff competition,” Wendy said, her voice carrying the hint of wistfulness.
Lee spared her a shy grin. “What can I say? I like my job. Now, what can we do to help NCIS?”
“Agent Morton, I see Lee has already shown you the best room in the house,” Admiral Nelson’s voice carried overtones of amusement as he spiraled down the stairwell. Lee and Wendy both turned in the direction of his voice. He came forward to join the two of them, a hand extended toward Wendy. They shook. Nelson was pleased to note that her handshake was strong and firm. “Have you ever been aboard a sub before, Agent Morton?”
She shook her head and hooked a stray strand of white-blond hair behind one ear. “No, I’ve never had the chance before. Please, Admiral, I’d like it if you called me Wendy, if that’s not a problem.”
The admiral flashed a quick smile as he moved toward the largest chair at the head of the table. Lee pulled out a chair for Wendy and she sat down. Lee joined the two, forsaking the edge of the table that he usually perched on, choosing instead to keep his head lower than Nelson’s, a position that indicated Nelson’s superiority over him. Nelson kept his tone light as he spoke. “What is NCIS’s interest in all this?”
“Given that Commander Ragland’s background was in caves and speleology we’re trying to determine why he considered that cave system safe enough to allow civilian entrance. Did he see something or discover something that he would risk his own life to recover? I would like to talk to Harrison about what she remembers and any of your crewmen who might have seen the caves, as soon as possible,” she explained.
Nelson was shaking his head. “It won’t be tonight. Dr. Harrison has severe injuries. Our CMO has her sedated and I’m not sure how clear her memories of the event are going to be, even when she does wake up. You’ll have to get Dr. Jamieson’s clearance before you start questioning her. You can talk to the crewmen, but that will also have to wait till the morning. We’re running at less then a seventy-five percent crew complement due to a classified emergency mission. My men need their rest. I rather suspect that you could use a few hours of rest as well.”
For several breaths Nelson could see there were several emotions running through her eyes. He was expecting her to argue with him, to demand to see Harrison right now. Feeling abnormally protective of the young woman, Nelson had already decided that no one was going near the injured archaeologist until she was ready.
Finally the agent sighed. “Chip was right about you, you are stubborn. And in this case you’re right. Dr. Harrison needs a chance to rest without me hounding her over something she probably can’t even remember at this point. And in all honesty I’ve been on the run since I heard about the accident. I’m not really thinking clearly.”
Nelson gave her another smile, understanding and compassionate. “I suggest you get some rest. You can talk with Dr. Jamieson in the morning and get some idea of when Harrison might be up to answering questions. We’ve all had a very long day. Some of us need to get some more rest.” Nelson cast a sidelong glance to Lee, who only looked away.
“A shower and something other than that imitation airline stuff would be great.” Wendy said wistfully.
Lee laughed and got to his feet—anything to get him away from Nelson’s soul piercing gaze. “I’ll escort you to your cabin then. I’ll have someone from the galley bring you up something to eat if you’d like.”
Wendy brightened and she also stood. “That would a blessing.”
“We’ll talk over breakfast then. Lee?” Nelson trailed the question off and the young commander nodded.
“Yes sir, as soon as I escort Wendy to her cabin,” Lee replied with a sigh. Nelson knew him all too well. No doubt the admiral would report straight to Jamie once he was certain that Lee was tucked in for the evening.
Lee led the way up the stairwell and down the corridor. Out of earshot of anyone else, Wendy asked Lee another quiet question. “And where is my brother?”
“His shift was over long before we learned you were on your way. He doesn’t know you’re aboard yet,” Lee said with a sneaky grin.
Wendy’s eyes opened wide and she gasped in surprise. “Lee Crane, that’s underhanded and dirty!” she hissed.
“He owes me. Long story. I actually was going to tell him but he’d already crashed and I hated to wake him up. You can surprise him in the morning,” Lee said.
“I bet I will. When can I talk to the rescue team?”
Lee frowned. “Tomorrow. As the admiral indicated, we’re short-handed and they need a chance to rest. I’ll be more than happy to answer questions tomorrow.”
Wendy drew back and studied Lee. “You were part of the rescue team? Is that how you got the Frankenstein stitches over your eye?”
“Chip said that chicks dig scars,” Lee muttered.
“In case you haven’t notice, Skipper, I am not a chick. I am a trained investigator sent here to do a job,” Wendy said with amusement.
“Obviously,” Lee grumbled, but grinned in good humor. They neared the closed door of one cabin and Lee gripped the doorknob, giving the door a push. He flipped the lights on and indicated that Wendy enter first. He watched as she took in the spacious cabin and her packs sitting on the bunk.
“Lee, this is bigger than some motels I’ve been in,” she commented.
Lee continued to smile, always amused when guests were caught off guard by Seaview’s spacious interior. Nelson designed her for research, function, and elegance, not just a weapon of war like so many believed her to be. “I’ll be sure to tell the admiral you approve. I’ll have someone from the galley bring you something hot.”
“No coffee. I’ll never sleep if I drink caffeine now,” she said as she moved toward her packs on the bunk.
“No problem. Cookie stocks several varieties of tea if you like—no caffeine.”
“That sounds good.”
“Anything you need, you can call the radio shack and he can route you to who you need. I’d better be going to my bunk now. Dr. Jamieson keeps tabs on how much sleep we get.”
Wendy chuckled. “I’ve heard about your Dr. Jamieson.” She paused and turned toward the lanky dark-haired man. “Lee, thank you. Thanks for watching out for Chip. Sometimes he forgets he can’t protect the world. He’s got a big heart. Granny used to say he’s looking for his brother. You did know he had a twin who died when they were barely twenty-four hours old?”
Lee nodded but couldn’t speak. He was still thinking about nearly losing Chip, not once but twice now.
“I think you kept him anchored when he found out Vanessa cheated on him. He was so hurt when he found out about that. I’ve always wanted to thank you, but there just didn’t seem like a good time.”
“Chip means…he’s the brother I never had. I can’t imagine my life without him.” Lee took two steps toward the door, not sure what else to say. Finally he jammed his hands into his pockets. “You should really go and get some rest. The day starts early around here.” Lee stepped into the corridor as Wendy moved to take control of the cabin door.
Wendy smiled at Lee again, the ghost of Chip’s famous thousand watt smile touching her face. “Yes, Captain. Sleep well.” With that gentle reminder, Wendy quietly closed the door, leaving Lee alone in the corridor. For a second he stood there thinking, but then made his way to his cabin.
Sliding inside, Lee felt fatigue catching up to him. With an enormous yawn he shed the wrinkled shirt and pulled the belt out of the belt loops. He wanted a shower in the worst way and made his way to the small head to rectify his still-filthy feeling condition. He stripped out of the shirt, laying it across the foot of the bunk. It wasn’t dirty since he’d only had it on a few hours. Lee paused and studied it, then picked it up and tossed it into the small hamper under the sink. He’d feel better in clean pajamas and a clean uniform come morning.
Once in the shower he lathered up and scrubbed, as if trying to wash away the memories of the last twenty-four hours. Remembering the elation at having caught up with the freighter and Chip…Seaview had surfaced, coming up beside the freighter at nearly the same time an explosion ripped through the other ship’s frame. Debris was flung in every direction and Lee found himself glued to the windows in the nose, unable to move for a split second as one word echoed in his head...Chip...
He hadn’t even been aware he’d given any orders. He had to of, even as he found himself topside with no memory of climbing the ladder. The freighter was on fire now, floating chunks of bits on fire burning in the water all around them. Another explosion blasted even more into the air and something else went flying over the railing of the dying ship. Something human shaped. Lee dared to hope as Patterson and three others hit the water in zodiacs, searching for survivors.
Patterson came back with a wet and exhausted Chip—so wore out and fatigued, he’d nearly passed out in Lee’s arms. Lee held onto his brother, offering all the support he’d had to give, terrified that if he let go Chip might vanish again like a wisp of smoke in the breeze.
Lee shut the water off, grabbed a nearby towel, and dried off. There was still a bumpy rash on his arms and splotches on his torso. They didn’t itch so much now. Lee ignored it, sure that it was nothing and that it would go way in the morning. He pulled on clean pajamas and climbed into his bunk, pulling the blankets up over him and feeling the thrum of Seaview’s engines, the vibrations of her twin screws as she cleaved through the sea. Safe in the embrace of his first love, Lee drifted off to sleep.
The next morning brought a fresh new day and a new perspective on things. Will Jamieson started his day a little different than most. With a ‘guest’ in his Sickbay, his first stop was there to check with John.
The young corpsman gave the doctor a quick grin as he handed over Harrison’s chart. “Morning, Doc. Sleep well?”
“Not too bad. How’s our guest?”
“Sleeping for the most part. She was awake a few times but she’s not really lucid. She’s very restless. I got the fax back from ECU. They’ve contacted her next of kin, her mother. I’ve continued the cortisone treatments per your recommendations to bring down the swelling in her shoulder and for her breathing. She seems to be having some trouble in that area.”
“She was having trouble last night. Has it gotten worse?”
“It hasn’t progressed but it isn’t clearing up either.”
Jamieson grumbled as he flipped through the medical file on the young woman. “We’re stymied by the fact we only have a family history relating to her mother’s side. There is no record of a paternal history. I hate flying blind or in this case half-blind. Very well. Bring Frank up to speed when he comes in. I’m heading for the Wardroom in a bit.” Will walked over to his patient’s bed and leaned over, reaching for a wrist. Harrison stirred under his touch. One green eye opened and focused on him. The other eye remained closed.
“Good morning,” he greeted as cheerfully as was safe.
“Is it? A good morning?” she muttered and closed her eye.
Jamieson frowned. “Young lady, in my profession, any morning that you’re alive to welcome is a good morning. You’ve got a long road ahead of you but I think you’ll be just fine.”
“You’re the doctor,” she grumbled.
Jamieson didn’t comment as he checked her pulse. A little thready but that was to be expected. She’d lost a lot of blood before they dug her out of that cave. “I’ve studied your medical records. I couldn’t help but notice that we don’t have a paternal history on you.”
Harrison snorted. “Probably ‘cause I don’t have a paternal history. I don’t know who my father is. I believe the correct medical term for that is ‘bastard’.”
Will took a mental step backward. There was a lot of anger in her words. “It’s not a problem, I just wasn’t expecting to have no record there, that’s all. It makes treating you a little tricky but not impossible.”
Harrison frowned as she cracked the same eye she’d previously opened. “Mom doesn’t think it’s a problem either. That’s one secret she’ll take to the grave, I suspect.” She closed her eye once more and let out a slow breath, ending with a low groan. It was obvious she was having trouble breathing. It looked like she was having to force the air from her lungs and drag another breath in. Jamieson frowned. He wasn’t really sure what kind of attitude she was going to have but she certainly wasn’t in very good sprits. He continued to take her pulse and then gently released her wrist. “What’s your pain level?”
“Off the charts,” she hissed through clenched teeth. That would explain the crabby mood.
“I can take care of that,” Jamieson responded and made an adjustment to the I.V. line.
“What’s wrong with me?” she asked quietly. She managed to open both eyes to stare up at the doctor. The gaze was unnervingly intense despite the pain meds.
“Nothing that time won’t cure. You have a dislocated shoulder. A few cracked ribs. A concussion…” he began only to have the redhead burst into a fit of coughing.
“And a…partridge….in a…pear tree,” she wheezed, gasping for air. Jamieson worked quickly, trying to raise her up while mindful of the cracked ribs.
“Any history of asthma?” he asked. She shook her head. “What about bronchitis?” Again she shook her head, her fingers wrapped around the rail as she whooped, unable to stop the coughing that seemed to wrack her body. “John, I need an oxygen mask,” he snapped, glancing up to see the night corpsman already in action with the tank and mask in his hand. First he pulled the canules aside then Jamie snatched the mask up and pressed it firmly against Harrison’s mouth and nose. “Try to breathe normally. I know it hurts and I know it’s hard but try,” he said calmly. Her green eyes seem clouded by pain and confusion but she nodded and tried to comply. Jamie motioned with an upraised thumb for John to turn up the output valve until it was wide open. Slowly she began to relax, easing down into the pillows as the coughing subsided. Finally it stopped altogether but her breathing was still labored.
“Just relax now. I’m going to leave this mask on you. I’ll turn down the oxygen volume but you can turn it back up if you need to. Okay?”
She nodded and Jamieson tucked the cylinder against her side, drawing her hand to the small knob on the valve. Pulling the blankets back up over her, Jamieson finally pulled away, deep in thought. Breakfast would have to wait.
Frank was standing in the office alcove. “Fresh coffee, Doc?” he asked.
“In a minute. Call down to the galley and see if Cookie can bring me something. I need to do some research and I don’t have time for a visit to the wardroom,” the doctor said. He sat down at the desk, aware that John and Frank were conferring with each other but not paying attention. He slowly began flipping through Harrison’s file again, searching for any kind of hint of a respiratory problem but finding nothing. Nothing in the maternal history and as he’d already noted, there was no paternal history to speak of. Jamie scowled. He continued to scan though her files but found nothing to indicate any allergy or previous respiratory incident.
He sighed as he glanced up. She was quiet again, her eyes were closed and she looked completely exhausted. The pain meds had finally kicked in and she was probably asleep. Agent Morton wasn’t going to like this at all. In her condition, Jamieson could not allow Harrison to be questioned. He doubted she could speak without coughing herself sick.
Still puzzling over her condition, Jamieson turned to his computer, hoping he could find an answer somewhere in the vast medical library within.
Chip Morton was up at his regular time, feeling better than he did yesterday. After showering, careful of the stitches in his arm, he donned a clean uniform and followed his nose to the wardroom, drawn by the scent of food and the lure of caffeine.
Lee was nowhere in sight but Chip wasn’t too concerned yet. It wasn’t common for Lee to come in after him. Chip collected his breakfast and settled down to enjoy it. He’d just cut his sausage links in half when he caught Lee’s entry into the wardroom out of the corner of his eye.
“About time. I thought I was going to have to eat your share so Cookie wouldn’t get a complex,” Chip said.
Lee scoffed. “Just an excuse to eat. What’s good this morning?” Lee asked, eyeing Chip’s plate.
“Uh, everything. You just don’t appreciate good food.”
“Unlike you, my world doesn’t revolve around the next meal. Maybe we need to find you a woman,” Lee shot back in good humor as he loaded his own plate and sat down across from Chip.
“When you find a woman,” Morton challenged as he shoved a slice of waffle into his mouth.
“What if I told you I had one?” Lee replied, pouring syrup over his waffles.
“Submarines don’t count, even if we do refer to her as a ‘she’,” countered the blond.
“Details, details,” Lee rambled.
“My job,” Chip reminded Lee, raising the coffee mug. At that moment something touched the back of his neck, drawing a feather-light touch just above his shirt collar. The effect was spectacular. Unnerved by the almost phantom-like touch, Chip dropped the cup to the table. It hit the edge of the plate, flipping the plate—and its contents—upward, smearing sausage grease, syrup, and butter on his khaki shirt and trousers. The coffee spilled over the table onto the floor, across the tops of his shoes, soaking the tops of his black socks. Choking back a dozen words that would have had normal crewmen scrambling for a lifeboat, Chip spun around to see who was behind him. He stared, unable to believe his eyes as his sister grinned at him.
“Hi, Chipper,” she said with an extremely amused grin.
“I…uh…Hi. What are you doing here?” Chip stammered, glancing to his sister then back to Lee who was also grinning merrily. “You knew,” Morton challenged.
“I’m the skipper. Of course I knew,” Lee responded as he shoved a mouthful of waffle in and chewed. Chip spun back to his sister and grinned. He took two steps forward to give her a hug but she pointed to his shirt.
“You’re wearing your breakfast. Might wanna change first before some hungry crewmen catches a whiff of you,” she said.
“Good point,” Chip grumbled. He turned and headed out the door, looking back once at Lee. “You owe me,” he warned and headed for his cabin.
Lee directed Wendy toward the buffet and she helped herself to breakfast. As a galley mate came out to clean Morton’s mess up, Wendy settled down across from Lee. “He’s going to kill you once you reach port, you know that don’t you?”
“Trust me, it was worth it. Getting him off center doesn’t happen very often,” Lee explained.
Wendy focused on Lee, something in her eyes questioning and weighing. “What?” Lee asked, uneasy at being the center of her attention.
“What’s wrong with him?”
Lee blinked. “Who?”
“Chip, who do you think? What happened to him? Something isn’t right. His color is wrong, he holds himself funny, and there’s something…something wild in his eyes. Something happened to him. What?”
Lee took a deep swallow of coffee to cover his surprise. Wendy was Chip's sister, someone who would know him as well or better than Lee did. She was also a trained investigator. She would notice things not normal. The sad part was that she was 100% right. There was a wild uneasy look in Chip’s eyes, as if he were watching for something—something or someone. Like maybe he wasn’t sure English was dead and might be lurking around a corner somewhere. The last few days had to have been hell, not knowing what the future held, not knowing for sure if someone was looking for you. Chip was tight enough to snap, one of the reasons Lee wasn’t sure he was ready for duty yet. God help them if she saw the stitches.
“Why don’t you ask Chip?” Lee ventured.
will lie to me. You have his best interests at heart. You won’t lie to me,”
Wendy said carefully.
Damn. She’s good. Crank up the guilt meter, won't you? “Wendy, I really think that you should talk to Chip.”
“So something has happened,” Wendy guessed. “He’s not the only one who looks wild. You keep watching him, like you’re checking to make sure he’s still there. I’ve seen that look before.” Wendy continued to watch him, her blue eyes intensely studying him, waiting for an answer.
Lee, fidgety and unable to meet her gaze, dropped his eyes to the table. “Talk to Chip. I can’t say anything else. He might be your brother in blood but he’s my brother in spirit and soul. I won’t …just talk to Chip.”
“I will,” she promised, getting a glimpse at the deep friendship her brother and this man had. Tactfully she let the subject drop, but she promised to question her brother before she left the boat. As they waited for Chip to return, Wendy nibbled on her breakfast and decided to change the subject. “You were telling me earlier that Dr. Jamieson joined you for breakfast?” she asked casually.
Lee glanced once more toward the door and frowned. “He’s usually here by now. I’m sure there’s a good reason he hasn’t shown up.”
“I really need to interview Dr. Harrison as soon as possible,” Wendy reminded sweetly, causing Lee to frown again. He was having a hard time telling himself she was just doing her job. He was about to remind Wendy that the decision to allow Harrison visitors fell with the CMO when Admiral Nelson entered and clearly heard her comment.
“When Dr. Jamieson clears Dr. Harrison for visitors, then you can interview her. Until then I suggest you concentrate on the crewmen involved in the recovery effort. Lee, see to it that Kowalski, Rogers, and Mitch have time to talk with her.”
Lee nodded. “Yes sir. I’ve already spoken to Sharkey. I’ll introduce you to the chief and he’ll see to it you have the time you need with them.” Lee’s attention shifted from the agent to the admiral.
“Very well,” Nelson replied. He headed to the buffet for his own breakfast and settled down at the head of the table. He glanced around quickly and noticed that Chip wasn’t in attendance. “Mr. Morton hasn’t gotten lost has he?” he asked with a touch of humor.
Lee locked down the huge grin that threatened and managed to keep a neutral expression on his face. “He had an unfortunate mishap with his breakfast and was forced to retreat to his cabin for a change in attire,” he replied calmly.
“I see,” Nelson rumbled, shaking his head, pretty sure that whatever Chip’s ‘mishap’ entailed, it had something to do with the woman and the dark-haired young man already seated, both looking far too innocent. Anything further Nelson might have said was put on hold as Chip reappeared followed closely by John Anthony, the night corpsman. Chip wasn’t happy and the corpsman looked decidedly subdued as he entered the Wardroom. “I’m only repeating what Doc said. Please don’t shoot the messenger, sir,” John asked.
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” Chip grumbled as he headed for the buffet to replace his breakfast.
John only raised his hands in surrender. “He just wants to check the stitches. You don’t want an infection to set in and end up in sickbay, do you sir?” he asked reasonably.
Wendy speared her brother a look. “Stitches? Did your doctor have to reattach something?”
Chip scowled. “Haha. No. For your information, it’s a small cut on my arm that doc stitched up. He’s afraid my arm might fall off if I don’t let him personally look at it every ten minutes.”
Lee and Nelson exchanged glances. Lee knew for a fact that the ‘small cut’ Chip was describing was easily five inches long and deep enough to require what doc called ‘fancy stitching.’ Wendy didn’t know about Chip’s second disappearance and Lee was reluctant to mention what really happened. If Chip wanted to keep it from her that was his business. The crew certainly wouldn’t say anything. Lee didn’t agree with it but, in the same vein, his mother had no clue what happened on some of the more interesting cruises. She certainly had no idea that her son also doubled as an agent for the Office of Naval Intelligence.
“Could I tag along?” Wendy asked.
Chip scowled as he attacked his second waffle. “To where?” he grumbled.
“When you go see the doctor about your arm. You are going, aren’t you?” Wendy asked, her voice coated in honey.
“You put her up to this, didn’t you?” Chip glowering at Lee. Lee smiled.
At this point the admiral waded into the fray. “Agent Morton,”
“Please, admiral. Call me Wendy. Too many Mortons onboard,” she reminded the admiral.
“Wendy, then. I thought I explained that Dr. Jamieson will let you know when Dr. Harrison is able to answer questions.”
Wendy blinked wide blue eyes at the admiral. “I simply thought that since she was unable at this time to talk with me, that your CMO might be willing to explain her injuries and her current condition.”
Nelson exhaled sharply. He turned his attention to his breakfast as he addressed Chip. “Mr. Morton, before you take root in the control room, you’ll let Dr. Jamieson assess your injury and introduce Wendy here to our CMO while you’re at it.”
The tone was one that no man dared to argue with. “Aye, sir,” Morton conceded defeat quietly and continued his breakfast. The four ate the rest of the meal in relative quiet. Lee was the first to finish. He downed the last of his coffee and bused his tray as Nelson finished his meal.
“Lee, I have a few things I’ll be working on in the lab. If you need anything…” Nelson trailed off as Lee nodded.
“Yes, sir. We shouldn’t have any problems. Chip, I’ll meet you in the control room.”
“Sure thing, Lee,” Chip acknowledged.
Nelson paused at the door and turned back. “Agent Morton, just what was NCIS’s logic behind sending you out here to lead this investigation?”
Wendy’s expression went blank but, unlike her brother’s totally emotionless expression, there was a touch of humor in her eyes and a smile tried to leak out over her lips. Nervously her eyes darted from Chip then back to the admiral. “It was decided that Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, senior field agent that he is, wouldn’t last twenty-four hours onboard Seaview before he was either keelhauled or shot from a torpedo tube. Director Shepard suggested that the sister of your exec would be less likely to…piss you off.”
For a second Nelson just stood there staring. Lee kept his distance, fists clenched and waiting for the detonation. Nelson’s temper was explosive and that was being kind. Lee wasn’t sure what the admiral was likely to do but he wasn’t prepared for the older man’s reaction.
Nelson smiled, glanced toward Lee, and then burst into laughter. Lee’s quick glance toward Chip proved that the eldest Morton was less than pleased with his sister’s bold comment and Chip was a bright shade of red, holding his head down and shielding his eyes with one hand. Still laughing, Nelson left the Wardroom and Lee followed at a distance, but not before glancing back to Chip who was still unable to raise his head up. Finally Lee took his leave, the sound of Nelson’s laughter sill echoing down the corridor.
Wendy finished her breakfast and followed Lee and Nelson’s example, busing her tray then returning to the table to sit across from her brother. Chip made sure the admiral and Lee were long gone and, ignoring the scattering of other officers in for breakfast, he focused his attention on Wendy.
“You wanna explain that crack? And while you’re at it, explain just what in the name of common sense are you doing here?” he snapped, his embarrassment gone in light of facing his sister head on.
“My job. I’m investigating the death of Commander Ragland. I need to talk to this Harrison person to find out why Ragland led a group of civilians into an apparently unsafe cave system.”
“What makes you think you can talk to the admiral like that? In case you haven’t noticed, I work for the man. I don’t care if you are my sister, if he gets tired of your antics he’ll ship you back to Washington so fast your head will spin!” he snarled.
“Would you relax? I was briefed on Admiral Nelson before I left, not to mention the dozens of stories I’ve heard from you. The man likes honesty. What would you have me do? Lie to him? Make up some line of bull? It’s the truth and you know it! Tony pushes that man’s buttons and we need answers, not a drawn and quartered agent.”
As much as it galled Chip, his sister was right. Nelson hated DiNozzo ever since an attempt on Nelson’s life years ago when Seaview was still undergoing her sea trials. He’d have never lasted ten minutes aboard the boat. He focused on eating, slowly realizing that his sister was staring at him. “What now?” he growled.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing’s wrong with me,” Chip snapped back.
“Chip, it’s me. You showed me how to take apart a radio and put it back together. You’re the one who showed me how to hack into the school computer and change the attendance records for Kathy Cookson, remember?”
Chip grinned. “The cheerleader who had her hooks into that guy you was hot for…what was his name?”
“Kevin. Kevin Daymar. Stop trying to change the subject.”
“I’m not changing the subject,” Chip interrupted.
Wendy held up a hand. “Stop!” she hissed. This was her brother’s territory after all. She didn’t want to attract a lot of attention. He’d kill her once they got home. “Chipper. Please. I notice these things. It’s my job. Something happened to you, something that still bothers you. I’ve seen that look on abuse victims.”
Chip fired up the reactor on the nuclear powered glare, aiming it at his sister. “I wasn’t abused. Do you know how lame that sounds?” he asked.
Wendy leaned back, crossed her arms over her chest and met the stare head on. It wasn’t easy. “Chip, you’re jumping at shadows and you can’t keep your eyes off people. It’s like you’ve never seen them before. Something’s wrong. Tell me what it is, maybe I can help.”
“Wen,” Chip growled, “nothing is wrong with me. Don’t go pestering the crew and do not start harassing Lee.”
“Too late. I already asked Lee.”
Chip blinked. Shit. “What did he tell you?” he managed to squeak. I’ll kill him if he told her.
Wendy sighed. “He’s your friend. Wouldn’t tell me anything. Just said I should talk to you about it. So I am.”
For a second Chip almost caved, almost told her about English and Daniel, his kidnapping, the last few days on the Crimson Reign, Daniel shooting English and the lost, haunted look in Daniel’s eyes…thou shall not kill…
Chip shook his head and blinked. He didn’t want to rehash it. He didn’t want to relive it. He wanted it to go away. Surely if he ignored it, eventually it would leave him alone. “We’ve had a rough couple of days. I’m tired and looking forward to going home.”
“That classified emergency assignment the admiral mentioned when I came aboard?”
“Exactly,” Chip answered with steel in his voice.
“What if I said I knew someone who could hack into your computer?” Wendy asked. She wasn’t sure what McGee could hack into, but Chip didn’t know that.
“I’d like to see someone try. I developed the institute’s firewall and security system myself.” The two continued to weigh and measure each other. Chip was torn between telling everything to his little sister and trying to forget the whole incident ever happened. He wanted his life back, he wanted to know where that flash of memory came from, he wanted to sleep at night without thinking someone was going to come through the door and pull him from everything he held close…”Don’t push it. Please. I’m not…I’m not in mood to play games right now. Maybe another time.”
“So you admit something did happen?” she asked. Lee had very nearly admitted the same thing. But what?
“Another day. Okay. Just…not now.” Chip continued to glare at his sister. He shoved another mouthful of waffle in but his appetite was rapidly heading south. Muttering under his breath, Chip bused his half eaten breakfast, catching the disapproving eye of Cookie. Chip sighed. “You have any sisters, Cookie?”
Earl Callahan grinned at the exec. “Yes sir, two of them. I’m in the middle. I’ll have something extra for you for lunch, if that’s alright?” Earl offered.
“Cookie, you are a lifesaver,” Chip replied with a light smile and he turned back to his sister, who was now on her feet and giving him her most innocent look. “Come on. Time to meet Torquemada,” Chip invited and moved toward the door. Wendy followed.
“You mean the Inquisitor General from the Spanish Inquisition in the 1400’s?”
“No,” Chip corrected, “Our CMO from Sickbay.”
Wendy rolled her eyes as she followed her brother down the corridor. Chip was always such a dramatic when it came to medical stuff, especially if needles were involved. Funny, she didn’t remember him being that way as a kid, just after he’d joined the navy. She stayed quiet and let him take the lead as they entered Seaview’s Sickbay. Again she was caught off guard. Wendy had heard that Seaview was by far bigger than most subs but she wasn’t prepared for just how spacious she was.
The first person Wendy saw was a tall lanky man with thinning brown hair and a pair of bright blue eyes. He had a well-defined face and what she could only describe as a lantern jaw. His was a face that smiled easily. He saw Chip and grinned but the grin diminished when he saw her. He raised an eyebrow in question, his eyes flicking back to Chip, clearly and silently demanding an explanation. She saw Chip sigh and realized that she wasn’t entirely wanted in this man’s domain.
“Doc, this is NCIS Agent Wendy Morton, who also happens to be my sister,” Chip began. “Wen, our CMO, William Jamieson.”
Wendy extended her hand and Jamieson accepted it. “Nice to meet you. Chip has often spoken about you,” she said.
Jamieson snorted. “I’ll bet he has. Chip, have a seat, ditch the shirt and let me check my handy work.”
“Doctor, would it be alright if I looked in on Dr. Harrison? I won’t wake her, I’d just like to see her, if I may,” Wendy asked, trying to be as respectful as possible.
Chip shot the doctor a sour look. Jamie returned the look, assuming that Chip hadn’t bothered to tell his sister about his latest addition to his collection of scars. Jamie pondered the situation for a breath and decided that having Lee hover over him was punishment enough. Justice would not be served if he told Wendy about the latest injury. “She’s resting right now. Do not wake her up. I don’t care what branch of what investigative service you belong to. I won’t tolerate you harassing my patients,” Jamieson warned.
Wendy drew back and nodded. “I promise not to wake her,” she said and slid quietly around the exam table to stand peaceably at the side of the sleeping redhead.
“I take it she doesn’t know about your latest adventure?” Jamieson whispered as Chip unbuttoned his shirt.
“No. Doesn’t know how bad the cut is, either,” Morton supplied.
“Mmm. Good luck with that,” Jamie replied.
“No joke. Just look it over so I can get dressed.”
Meanwhile Wendy was watching the sleeping woman. She tried to remember all that she had been briefed on concerning the woman. Marine archaeologist, with East Carolina University, specializing in shipwrecks. Other facts filtered through Wendy’s mind as she drew up a chair and settled down. Wendy noticed the full length cast on the woman’s right leg and she wondered what other injuries she had. Suddenly the woman’s eyes fluttered then slowly opened. Intense green eyes stared at her for a minute and she tilted her head slowly, studying her.
“You a natural blond or do you bleach?” the woman croaked.
From the table Chip snorted as he tried not to laugh. Wendy ignored him. “Natural,” she answered.
“Agent Morton, I thought I said not to wake her up,” Jamieson grumbled. Wendy raised both hands.
“I did no such thing, she woke on her own. I never touched her.”
Harrison narrowed her eyes. “Agent? What are you, a spy or something?”
“My name’s Wendy Morton. I’m with NCIS.”
“Never heard of it,” Harrison giggled, only to have the giggle morph into a cough. With shaky hands she grabbed for the plastic mask at her side and covered her mouth and nose. She took a few deep breaths and the coughing subsided. She did not remove the mask however. She’d been through this before.
“Stands for Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Think of us as a policing force for the navy. I’m looking into the death of Nigel Ragland. Dr. Harrison, I really need to ask you a few questions,” Wendy began. Harrison moved the mask slightly.
“No title. Call me Serena,” she instructed and replaced the mask. Laboring to breathe normally, she shifted her eyes around Sickbay, watching the doctor interact with another man who was sitting on the exam table. His shirt was off and all Serena could see was his broad muscular back. She heard the blond woman talking to her and she had to make herself listen. She would much rather watch the show. Mr. Shirtless looked far more interesting than whatever Blondie here had to say.
“Serena. I need to know about the cave Ragland was leading you through.”
Serena blinked and shuddered. She didn’t want to remember the cave. She didn’t want to remember the dark. Trapped in the blackness, screaming until her voice was gone, slipping in and out of consciousness as countless hours passed…she felt her heart pounding and the heart monitor behind her bunk reflected that. The noise caused the doctor to glance up from his work and shoot a warning glare at Wendy. “Agent Morton,” he warned but the monitor began to slow as Serena forced herself to calm down.
Wendy frowned. She wasn’t going to get anywhere like this. “Did Ragland know the caves were unstable?” she pushed.
Serena blinked, trying to hard to think. She didn’t want to take the mask off but it seemed important that she answer. She extended one hand, flat and palm down, and wobbled her hand back and forth.
“Is that a maybe or I don’t know?” Wendy asked. Serena gave a thumbs-down. “I don’t know?” Wendy guessed and Serena nodded. “He never said anything about the cave’s integrity?”
Serena pointed her thumb down. Wendy nodded “No.” She was making some progress at any rate. “Was Ragland looking for something?”
Serena nodded giving a thumbs-up then wobbled her hand again.
“So Ragland was looking for something but you don’t know what,” guessed Wendy and Harrison nodded. Then she did something else. She held up six fingers. Then she held up one and pointed to herself. Wendy puzzled and glanced up at the doctor and her brother. Chip was buttoning his shirt as he hopped off the table.
“There were six researchers in the cave?” Chip guessed, overhearing the questioning and Serena nodded. “You were one of the six,” he added and she nodded again. Her eyes were locked onto him, wide and questioning. Chip glanced over to Jamieson. He turned around, putting his back toward her and quietly spoke to the doctor. “Did you tell her she’s the only survivor?”
Jamieson shook his head. “No time. She hasn’t been conscious for very long. She is in no shape to hear that kind of news,” he said. Chip nodded his understanding and turned back around to face her. She was still watching him, her green eyes following his every move. Chip found the stare unnerving and he had the weirdest feeling he’d seen it before. Without warning there was a voice in his head, whispering; I’ll find you again, I promise. It’s better this way. Those green eyes looked down at him, slowly filling with tears. Chip blinked and tightened his fists. Another memory that had no place in his mind. Unless Lee was right and it was from Peru…
Very slowly and deliberately Harrison moved her eyes across sickbay and Chip watched as she studied each bunk. Once more she pointed to herself and held up one finger. Chip knew what she was asking but he couldn’t bring himself to tell her she was the lone survivor of a group of six. She must have seen the story in his eyes and reality set in. The heart monitor went wild and Harrison’s breathing hiccupped, barreling out of control as she began shaking. She closed her eyes but it wasn’t enough to stop the tears from spilling down. Chip felt a hand on his shoulder.
“The interview over. I need this sickbay cleared and off-limits,” Jamieson ordered, tightening his grip on Chip’s shoulder.
Wendy shot to her feet. “I’m not finished! I still have questions that need answers. She’s the only witness I have!” she began, but Jamieson had had enough.
“What part of ‘this is over’ do you not understand, Agent Morton?” the doctor snapped out. “Commander, please escort this woman out of my sickbay and she is not to return without my express permission, am I clear? Frank, I need a sedative!” Jamieson barked, clearly not happy this time and focusing his anger on the Morton sister. Chip reached for his sister’s arm, physically pulling her out of sickbay. Chip barely had time to clear the door when it was slammed shut practically on his heels.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Chip barked, grabbing her by her shoulders. Wendy pulled herself up to her full height and glared back at her brother, slapping at her brother’s hands.
“ME? I’m not the one who told her the rest of the party was dead!”
“She figured it out—I didn’t say a word to her! You overstayed your welcome! You should have known the interview was over when she lost it!” Chip snapped back. Oddly his voice never rose beyond the current low deadly tone and Wendy realized she’d pushed the wrong buttons. The quieter Chip got, the madder he was. Right now she doubted his voice would have carried around the corner.
“I’m trying to do my job,” she shot back, trying to make her brother see reason, but Chip was beyond furious.
“You can interview the rescue team. Right now you have one seriously pissed doctor and one distressed witness who Doc isn’t going to let out of his sight anytime soon. You’ve blown your chances of interviewing her until he says so. You have no idea how stubborn that man can be!”
“She’s my only witness! He has to let me interview her!” Wendy insisted.
“When he thinks she can handle it. You don’t understand, do you? He’s the Chief Medical Officer. He has the power to declare the captain unfit for duty if he has to. He can keep you out of sickbay indefinitely!” Chip snapped back.
“He can’t do that! She’s the only witness!”
“And he’s a doctor. His job is to make sure she stays alive. He doesn’t give a damn about your investigation.”
Wendy seethed, trying to come up with a winning argument, but she knew she was facing defeat. Chip was obviously still furious as he grabbed the nearest mike from its housing. “Chief Sharkey,” he growled.
The call was instantly answered by what sounded to Wendy like a Brooklyn accent. “Chief Sharkey here.”
“Chief, what’s your location?”
“Missile room, sir.”
“I’m bringing an NCIS agent down to you. Let her have a few minutes with each member of the rescue crew. When she’s finished, notify me. At once,” Chip said, glaring at his sister. She returned the glare, trying not to cower. That wasn’t what she was trained for. This wasn’t how this trip was supposed to go.
“Yes, sir. I’ll round the guys up and she can talk to them all at once.”
“Very well. Carry on.” Chip slammed the mike back on its catch. He spun on his heel and headed down the corridor, forcing Wendy to follow. She was about to say something when by some strange reason he stopped and whirled to face her. “Not one word,” he warned, his eyes like two points of blue flame. “You are slowly wearing out your welcome here. One more stunt like that and I promise you, when the admiral finds out—and trust me he will—you’ll have a one-way ticket back to the States on the Flying Sub! The admiral has no problem telling NCIS where they can shove this investigation.”
Chip left his sister in the company of Chief Sharkey and made his way back to the control room. He found Lee at the plot table going over a stack of printouts. Lee glanced up and noticed the troubled expression on Morton’s normally calm face. “Problem?”
“My sister. She’s going to alienate the entire crew—and me—if she doesn’t watch it,” Chip muttered and proceeded to explain. By the time he was finished even Lee was frowning.
“He slammed the door? Seriously pissed I would say.”
“Now I feel like a complete heel. I didn’t say a word to her but somehow she knew she was the only one who came out of that cave alive. She totally lost it. I felt so bad for her. That has to be horrible to live with.”
“Maybe Jamie will cool off and you can apologize to her later.” Lee paused to clear his throat and cough a few times into his hand. Chip’s expression darkened.
“Catching a cold?” he asked.
“No,” Lee said, quickly recovering. “Just a dry throat. Humidity levels might be a little low. I’ll grab a cup of coffee.” He scratched at a spot on his arm absently. He hadn’t thought to check to see if that rash was back this morning. It slipped his mind, what with Wendy being on board.
“The wonder-cure,” Chip added with a twisted grin, trying to pull his attention to the job at hand.
Lee decided to breech the subject of Chip’s kidnapping. “Wendy’s asking about you.”
“And I don’t want her to know,” Chip snapped, picking up on Lee’s train of thought immediately. “She’ll tell Mom and Dad and there isn’t anything anyone can do about it now. It’s over and I don’t want to dwell on it.”
“So what harm can it do to tell her now that it’s over?” Lee asked.
don’t want to. It’s over. English is dead. Daniel, God save his soul, he’s dead,
too. That whole boat, the entire crew is dead. I can’t sit here and dwell on
it, think about it, worry over it like a dog with a bone. It’s over.”
Lee wasn’t giving up. He thought Chip needed to get it out in the open, talk to somebody about what happen. If not him, than at least his family should know. “She knows something is wrong. If she’s anything like you she won’t give up until she gets the whole story.”
Chip dropped his hands to the plot table, spreading his fingers out across the surface and closing his eyes. “I promised that I would explain. Just not right now. I need…I want it to go away. I want my life back. Is that wrong?”
“No,” Lee conceded. “It’s not wrong. It’s perfectly normal. But I hate to have to lie for you. You should have a talk with her.”
“Later. Not now. This isn’t the time or the place. Can we drop this and move on, please?” Morton pleaded. Lee sighed and didn’t push the subject any further. For the next forty-five minutes the two went over the satellite GPS readings and their current course.They were going over the log from last night when the intercom came to life. “Nelson to Control room.”
Lee reached for the mike without looking and clicked. “Crane here.”
“Lee, could I see you in the lab?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be right down,” Lee replied and hung the mike back up. He grinned at Chip. “Promise not to tick off Lieutenant O’Brien?” Lee asked, flicking his eyes toward the younger officer standing by the upright plotter.
“Bobby and I get along just fine, thank you. Scram,” Chip urged and Lee grinned as he climbed up the stairwell.
At the top of the stairwell Lee realized he was wheezing and he was slightly out of breath. He gripped the doorframe, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. Was he getting a cold like Chip suggested? No. He dismissed the idea and continued to blame the humidity levels. He promised himself a visit down to environmental control to see if there was a problem and continued on the way to the admiral’s lab. On the way there Sharkey’s voice rang out, calling for a corpsman to the missile room. For a second Lee wondered if he should go down there on his own but decided against it. If it were serious, Jamie would notify him.
The lab door was closed and he knocked lightly. He heard the acknowledgement to enter and pushed the door in. He found Nelson standing in front of the back wall of specimen tanks, watching one of the cleaner fish work his way across the front glass. Nelson didn’t pull away from the tanks but addressed Lee as he made notes on a clipboard. “And how is Agent Morton getting along?”
Lee took a deep breath, noting that it seemed harder to draw in air. It felt like something had wrapped around his chest, making it hard to draw a breath. He dismissed it, still blaming the humidity levels and promised himself a cup of coffee as soon as he finished here. He then launched into the story Chip told him. By the time he was done, Nelson had tossed the clipboard to the nearest table and ran his hand through his auburn hair.
“Civilians!” he declared in the same vein as someone might have said ‘cockroach’. “Where is our guest now?” he demanded.
“Chip left her with Chief Sharkey, to interview the other three on the rescue crew. I thought I’d talk to her at lunch time.”
Nelson could not help himself. “Are you implying that you’ll stop to eat lunch? You’ll scare Earl out of a week’s growth.”
“Hopefully not that bad. I just want her to wrap this investigation up. I like Chip’s sisters, but…” Lee trailed off trying to find the words to express his feelings. He found Nelson nodding.
“This mess with Chip is still too fresh. Compound that with the fact that Chip obviously doesn’t want his sister to know about this last incident. You, um, you heard him in the wardroom,”
Lee rolled his eyes. “A small cut. Yeah, I heard that. You saw that wound. It is not described as small.”
Nelson scoffed and laughed softly. “Mr. Morton certainly has his hands full.” Nelson paused, watching Lee. The younger man was clutching the back of a chair and was slightly bent forward. “Lee, something wrong?”
Lee shook his head. “No. Why?” He straightened, not even realizing he had bent forward.
Nelson frowned. “You look like you’re having trouble breathing. Are you sure you’re alright?”
Lee snorted and grinned. “Admiral, I feel fine. You’re starting to sound like Jamie.”
“And you’re starting to sound like a broken record.” Nelson was about to say something else when Jamieson’s voice cut through the air. “Sickbay to Admiral Nelson.”
With a puzzled look to Lee, Nelson picked up the mike. “This is Nelson. Go ahead sickbay.”
“Admiral, I need to see you right away. It’s important.”
“Alright. I’ll be right down,” Nelson acknowledged and hung the mike back up. “Shall we see what has transpired in sickbay?”
“Could be connected to that missile room call.”
“Possibly. We’ll never know unless we go down there,” Nelson added.
The pair found sickbay a bit on the crowded side. In addition to the sleeping—or sedated, Lee wasn’t sure—archaeologist, Crewman Mitch was on the exam table and Rogers was already being moved to a bunk. Both men were on oxygen and even Lee could see they were blue around their lips and under their eyes. It was an eerie look and Lee couldn’t help but stare. Only then did Lee notice that Wendy was standing in the corner, also staring. She had one arm crossed over her chest and she absently chewed on a thumbnail as she watched the scene unfold.
“Wendy?” Lee called out and she slowly focused on him. “What happened?”
“They…they just passed out. I had already talked with Kowalski about what he remembered and was talking to Rogers when Mitch started gasping for air. The chief was nearby and he called for a corpsman. He…he was starting to turn blue and I didn’t even think about it. I started CPR and kept it up until the corpsman arrived.”
“If I didn’t know better I’d say they were hypoxic. I need to conduct some tests,” Jamie interjected, ignoring the fact that barely an hour ago he’d kicked the blonde woman out of his sickbay. One thing about Jamieson, he wasn’t one to carry a grudge.
“Any ideas?” Nelson asked.
“None at the moment,” Jamieson supplied as he continued to work on Mitch. There was a thud in the corridor and every head swiveled in the direction of the door to see Patterson half carrying, half dragging the unconscious figure of Kowalski through the door.
“Frank, get Mitch in a bunk. Pat, bring Ski over here. What happened?”
Patterson eased his friend onto the exam table. “He just passed out. We were working on one of the ballast pumps and the next thing I knew he’d collapsed on the deck. I knew I could get him up here faster than calling for a corpsman since you already had one emergency to deal with,” Patterson explained, his eyes growing dark with worry over Ski.
“Good thinking, Pat. We’ve got things from here. I’ll let you know how he’s doing,” Jamie said gently, a hint for Patterson to take his leave. Patterson nodded his thanks and with a backwards glance to his friend he reluctantly left.
“Frank, complete blood panel on all three. I need some numbers. And a complete chest set. It would help to know what I’m looking at here,” Jamie ordered. Frank was one step ahead of the doctor, already collecting the gear needed and collection tubes, labeling three. “And get them out of those jumpsuits,” the doctor added. Frank silently complied, working on Rogers first.
“Doc,” Frank called out. Jamieson heard the note of something odd in the corpsman’s voice and he spun around. Frank had unzipped the blue jumpsuit and Jamie saw the red rash that covered Rogers’ truck and chest. Jamieson choked back a litany of swear words.
“Take swabs, run some cultures. Find out what the hell that is,” Jamison ordered. At that moment Harrison sputtered to life, coughing, gagging, and wheezing, trying to get some air. Doc spun around but Wendy had already broken into a jog, ending up by Harrison’s bunk and grabbing for the oxygen mask that the archaeologist was blindly groping for. She held the mask firmly over Harrison’s face and she turned up the output valve. Slowly the redhead settled down and Wendy pulled the elastic strap over the back of Harrison’s head, holding the mask in place. “You might have redeemed yourself, Agent Morton,” Jamie said quietly.
“Please call me Wendy. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to stay. You have your hands full with three crewmen. I can stay with her. I promise not to harass her.”
Jamieson shot Nelson a look. The admiral shrugged. “Your call. She would make it easier to deal with a female patient.”
Jamieson nodded. The admiral was right. “Alright, Wendy. Make yourself useful. You know CPR? I take it you have first responder training. Entailing what exactly?”
Wendy launched into a quick explanation of what she’d been trained to do. As Nelson and Lee looked on, Jamie had to admit she seemed almost as well trained as Chip, who was also a first responder and he said as much. Wendy grinned slyly.
“That’s what happens when your mother is a nurse and a physical therapist,” she added.
“True enough,” the doctor concurred. Finally he turned his attention to the ranking officers. “I don’t have answers yet. I need to know what these three have eaten in the last twelve hours, any factors they might have in common.”
Lee blinked, raking his fingers through his dark hair. “They were the rescue crew. They went in with me to recover Dr. Harrison and the rest of the group.”
Jamieson spun to face Lee. “Are you sure?” Lee nodded. “Damn,” Jamieson spat out and then refocused on Lee. “Do you have any symptoms of ANYTHING not normal?” he demanded. Lee shook his head.
“No, doc, I feel fine. Really.”
Jamieson didn’t look convinced. “I’ve half a notion to keep you here, just to be on the safe side,” he began and Lee immediately protested.
“I have a boat to run, I can’t stay here for every little cough and wheeze!” he wailed. Jamieson shook his head and spared a quick glance to Nelson who was trying hard not to grin.
“I said half a notion. However, I seem to be overwhelmed at the moment so I’ll give you a free pass. I expect you to come back here if you even have a twitch of anything abnormal,” Jamie warned.
“Jamie, I feel fine, really,” Lee insisted, and Jamieson rolled his eyes.
“Spare me the broken record,” he said, echoing Nelson’s earlier comment. “Okay, I need space and you two are crowding me. I need to run some tests, I need to evaluate my data and I’ll give you an update as soon as I have one to pass along. Move along, please,” Jamie asked and gently shooed the admiral and the young commander out the door.
The pair stood in the corridor for a second. “Lee,” Nelson began but Crane was quick to defend himself.
“Admiral, there isn’t anything wrong with me,” he reiterated. Nelson sighed.
“I was just checking. Chip’s probably wondering what’s going on. Let’s go down and give him an update and give Doc a chance to run his tests. Maybe in an hour he’ll have some answers for us,” Nelson suggested, leading the way to the Control room. Lee lagged behind, growing more and more winded with each step. Without thinking he found himself scratching at his right arm, his long fingers digging into the material of his sleeve, trying to relieve a maddening itch. Glancing down, Lee noticed a dark spot on his sleeve, over the area he’d been scratching. The pinprick was growing darker and larger as he watched. Detached, he realized he’d scratched the skin raw and he was now bleeding. With a jolt Lee realized Nelson was far ahead of him and he hurried to catch up, before Nelson noticed and thought something was wrong.
The effort left him gasping. The vice he imagined around his chest earlier only tightened. He tried to breathe normally, praying the admiral didn’t notice. He stayed far enough behind hoping the admiral wouldn’t hear his wheezing. Nelson headed down the stairwell and Lee followed a few steps behind. At the bottom of the stairwell Lee paused, gripping the railing as he fought for air. He couldn’t make his lungs work. It was impossible to draw in enough air to form a breath. His vision began to gray out and all he could hear was his blood pounding in his ears. He tried to call out to Nelson but he couldn’t force enough air out to form a word. Spots began to dance in front of Lee’s eyes and he felt his knees begin to give out. The gray dissolved into darkness.
Something made Nelson turn around and he had just enough time to see the skipper folding in on himself, collapsing to the deck. With a strangled cry of ‘Lee!’, Nelson rushed forward to catch his friend before he hit the deck. Grabbing Crane around his chest, Nelson lowered the young man to the deck, cradling Lee’s head in his arms, frantically looking for some sign of injury. Then he noticed Lee was laboring to breathe, the sound of his gasping sending cold daggers of real fear shooting though Nelson. He was vaguely aware of Chip calling for a corpsman but Nelson’s focus was on Lee. He loosened the black tie and undid the top few buttons on the khaki shirt and when he did he saw the oozing red rash that crawled up Lee’s chest, onto his shoulders and the lower part of his neck. Nelson pushed the shirt back to expose more of his chest and he sucked in a ragged breath. The rash covered nearly all of Lee’s chest and torso and seemed to spread onto his arms, virtually anyplace covered by Lee’s clothes.
Chip appeared at Nelson’s side, his expression concerned and a touch frightened. “Sir?” he asked. Nelson shook his head even as he stared at the hideous rash covering Lee’s body.
“I…I don’t know, Chip. He said he was fine. I could kick myself for believing him. Jamie asked him how he was after the others were brought in,” Nelson replied quietly.
“We’ve all been there, Admiral. This is Lee we’re talking about,” Chip reassured the older man. “The others?”
Nelson remembered that Chip hadn’t been briefed on the other crewmen. He explained about the three others, related that Lee had already pointed out that they all had been part of the rescue team that had pulled Harrison to safety.
Lee suddenly gasped, grabbing on to Nelson’s shoulder with a vice-like grip.
“Easy Lee. The corpsmen are on their way.”
Lee wasn’t ready to give up. He could barely breathe but he forced the words out one painful syllable at a time. “Sir…on the walls. Black slime.” Lee took in another deep gasp. “Like tar.” That was all Lee had the strength for. His entire body went limp in Nelson’s arms, sending the admiral into a near panic. He was two steps away from lifting Crane up himself and taking him to sickbay as he tried to make sense of what Lee was saying. Black slime on the walls? There was nothing on the walls, at least nothing that Nelson could see. It didn’t make sense.
Finally the corpsmen arrived and Lee was carried off. Chip stayed behind in the control room as Nelson of course followed Lee. Morton tried to focus on his job, checking their course, double-checking their position, a dozen other random little mindless tasks that he carried out without even thinking about it. Eventually Chip found himself wandering the control room, stopping and looking over the shoulders of each man at their stations. The control room was the last place he wanted to be. Lee had risked everything to go along with his hair-brained idea of purposely being kidnapped. Lee had followed the signal from the admiral’s tracker, going on faith alone that he was still alive. Lee had no real idea if he was dead or alive. It hadn’t mattered. He came anyway. Chip didn’t know how to repay that kind of friendship. Of all the things they had seen and experienced over the years that one act stood out, a defining act of friendship. Of brotherhood.
Chip found himself staring into nothingness as a voice punched a hole in his thoughts. Pulling himself back to the present he realized that Bob O’Brien was looking up at him with concern. “Sir, our course is set, our trim is sound. Why don’t you go check on the skipper? You can give us an update when you get back,” the younger man suggested.
With something of a shock, Chip realized that two hours had passed since Lee had been taken to sickbay. Chip would have laughed if the situation hadn’t been so grim. “Have I gotten that predictable, Bob?” he asked with a weak smile.
“Do I have to answer that, sir?” O’Brien said with his own grin. Chip couldn’t stop the chuckle, albeit a weak one, and dropped the pencil in his hand to the table.
“Alright. I won’t be gone long. I’d say not to run us into a seamount but I don’t think there are any nearby,” Chip replied.
“I’ll steer clear of any whales in the area then,” the younger man reassured his ranking officer.
Shaking his head at the prospect of being understood so well by a junior officer, Chip headed up the stairwell to sickbay and hurried down the corridor. Quietly he stood in the doorway, watching the carefully choreographed dance of the CMO and three corpsmen on duty. In the farthest corner of Sickbay, Wendy sat quietly at the side of the redheaded archaeologist.
Lee had been stripped of his uniform, redressed in sickbay scrubs and installed into a bunk. An I.V. was dripping clear fluid into the tubing leading into Lee’s right arm. Lee was unconscious, with an oxygen mask fitted over his mouth and nose. Even with the help of a steady supply of oxygen it was clear that Lee was fighting a battle just to draw a breath. As Chip glanced around he realized that two other crewmen had already been intubated, a machine aiding their breathing indicating they could no longer breathe on their own.
“Doc?” Chip called out to Jamieson as he was bent over Lee, listening to his lungs through the ever-present stethoscope. The doctor shook his head and rose up to face Morton.
“You’d think by now I’d have learned NEVER to believe that man when he says ‘I’m fine.’ Did I learn anything from the last time he pulled that stunt on me? No. I should never have let him leave the first time,” Jamieson grumbled.
“Jamie, you’ll only worry yourself into an ulcer,” Chip said. Jamie shrugged.
“There is that. I suppose you’re here for an update?”
“If you have one.”
“The blood tests on these three,” Jamie indicated the first three patients, “indicate an increase in the white blood cells, possibly indicating an infection and may be tied to the rash. The admiral has carted off samples to examine in his lab. Maybe he’ll see something I missed. I’ve ordered cultures on the rashes, trying to narrow down what it is.”
Jamie shook his head. “Right now, nothing. The x-rays all show the same thing: lesions on their lungs.”
“Lesions?” Chip repeated. To illustrate what he was talking about, Jamieson picked up two films and jammed them into the lightbox and flipped the switch. The two x-rays came to life, backlit by the white glow of the light box. “See here, these are lesions on the skipper’s lungs,” he pointed to dark spots within the outlines of Lee’s lungs. “Just beginning to manifest. At this stage the damage is reversible, if we can figure out what’s causing it.”
Chip didn’t like where this conversation was going. “You said it’s reversible now.”
Jamieson took a deep breath. “Whatever this thing is, Harrison was exposed to it for far longer than Lee and the other three. The lesions eventually kill the healthy lung tissue, forming scars. This scar tissue isn’t as elastic as the healthy lung tissue. In a healthy person the lungs expand and stretch, especially in a diver. Harrison already has scar tissue forming and it’s not reversible. She could have breathing problems from here on out and it will make diving difficult.”
Jamie’s implications hung in the air, like smoke from a distant fire. Chip felt his knees weaken as he slowly understood what the doctor was telling him. “Jamie, are you saying, that Lee…” Chip couldn’t even finish the sentence.
“Chip, if we don’t find a cure, and if Lee and the others live, the damage to their lungs will be permanent and they won’t have the capabilities to dive.”
Lee would only be half the man he was now if he lost the ability to dive. Lee was the first to volunteer for collection dives, always ready to lead a repair team out. Lee loved the water. It didn’t matter, sea, lake, pond or creek. He was drawn to water in any form. Chip accused him of taking walks in the rain just to be closer to the water. Something else suddenly occurred to Chip. “Jamie, I have to ask: is this contagious?” Chip asked with a worried glance to his sister but Jamie shook his head.
“No. There is nothing to indicate that this is contagious. The admiral is working on a theory that whatever this is, it might have come from the island.”
“From the cave?” Chip guessed.
“Exactly. Harrison spent ten hours or more breathing whatever was in that hole and Lee and the rescue team were exposed to it recovering the bodies and Harrison. That’s the only thing they have in common.”
“Doc!” Frank’s voice called out excitedly and both Chip and Jamie looked up. Jamie made his way to the small table where Frank was looking over the small round petri dishes.
“What did you find, Frank?” Jamie asked as he hovered over the younger man’s shoulder.
“The cultures are developing faster than you expected,” Frank explained, lining up four dishes. Already there were feint streaks of yellow against the bottom of the round dishes. Jamie reached out and picked up one covered dish and held it up to the light. Still holding it up, Jamie walked to the nearest mike. “Sickbay to Admiral Nelson.”
Nelson immediately picked up. “Go ahead, Will.”
“Admiral, the cultures are developing faster than I planned.”
“I’ll be right up.” Nelson snapped, followed by the audible click as the mike was slammed against the housing in Nelson’s hurry.
Chip was torn between his family and his friend. He caught his sister watching him and she made a slight movement with her head, indicating Lee’s general direction. Not needing another hint, Chip moved to Lee’s side.
“Lee?” Chip asked quietly. Lee did not stir. His eyes did not flutter. Chip felt something in the pit of his stomach twist and turn sour. He took up Lee’s right hand in his own, trying to convey strength and hope to his friend. “Don’t check out on me now, Lee. You’re tougher than this thing. You can beat it. I need you to fight,” Chip said to his friend. Lee’s hand remained limp. There was no answering squeeze, no tightening of fingers around Chip’s hand. Slowly Chip replaced Lee’s hand atop his chest and took a step back, for a moment too overwhelmed to say or do anything.
The admiral made his appearance, out of breath from having run the distance from his lab to sickbay. “Will?” he asked, his anxious blue eyes scanning the occupants. When the admiral’s gaze came to rest on Lee it was impossible not to notice the flash of pain and angst. Quickly the admiral moved to where Jamieson was working with the cultures.
Knowing he would never have understood half of what the admiral and Jamie were discussing, Chip walked to where his sister sat by Harrison’s side. “How is she?” he asked.
“Weak. It’s hard for her to breath. She says it’s like pneumonia only ten times worse,” Wendy said. She adjusted a cloth draped over the other woman’s forehead. “She’s running a fever now. I suspect the others will soon.”
“She’s been awake?” Chip asked.
Wendy shrugged. “A little. Here and there. She’s not really aware of what’s going on. She focuses on me, I guess because I’m here. How’s Lee? I haven’t gone to check on him. I promised Dr. Jamieson I would stay with her and let him and his people work on the others.”
“Lee’s tough. He’s been though worse.”
“How much worse can this get?” Wendy demanded and Chip slammed his mouth shut. No one needed to know some of the things Lee had been though. Wendy turned her gaze back to Lee. Slowly she got up and crossed the short distance to him, brushing a stray curl out of the way. “It’s not natural to see him like this.”
“No. It’s not. He tends to sprawl when he sleeps. He needs a lot of room. It’s those long legs,” Chip said, trying to lighten the mood.
Wendy shook her head. “You two are a pair, you know that? Remember that time when you brought Lee home, that first Christmas?”
Chip leaned against the bunk support, hands in his back pockets. “His mother is a photojournalist. She’d gone to Russia for a four-month film shoot. Can you believe he was going to stay on campus for the holidays?”
“Sounds like Lee. Remember, it was a couple of days after Christmas and Lee said he’d collect the dinner dishes?”
Chip laughed softly. He certainly did remember that. Just a reminder that Lee Crane had a wicked sense of humor. “He gathered all the dishes up and then walked up to me and said, ‘here, take these for a second.’ I was an idiot, I let him load me down with a stack of dirty plates and bowls and what does he go and do?”
“Announce to Mom and Dad that you volunteered to do the dishes,” Wendy finished also laughing softly.
“Crazy skinny kid,” Chip muttered under his breath. He saw Wendy take in a deep shuddering breath and something occurred to him. He always teased Lee that Wendy had a crush on him. Hell, half the neighbor girls did! Those amber eyes and those dark lashes of Lee’s were like some kind of magnet. At one point Wendy did have a crush on his best friend but Chip assumed that as Wendy got older and moved toward a successful career she’d grown out of it. Watching her standing over Lee, Chip wondered if maybe she hadn’t outgrown that teenage crush.
“What if he…” Wendy started and Chip moved toward his sister and pulled her into an embrace. No, she certainly was not over that teenage crush.
“He won’t. You don’t know Lee like I do. He’s the most stubborn, most hard-headed person I know.”
Wendy wiped at her eyes, the back of her hand suspiciously wet. “More stubborn than your Admiral Nelson?” she asked.
“Agent Morton, I heard that,” the admiral rumbled from the corner where he and Jamie were working. He never even looked up.
“Just repeating hearsay and rumor. Sir,” Wendy added the sir quickly, following the example she’d heard both Lee and Chip make.
There was an amused snort. “Mr. Morton, your sister is far too clever for her own good.”
“Yes, sir. I’ve known that for quite some time,” Chip replied.
“Chip,” Nelson straightened and focused his attention on the exec. “I think you need to get FS1 ready for launch. We’re going to have to go back to that island.”
“And look for what? Something that may or may not exist? I think we’d stand a better chance of getting them to a real facility. I’m barely able to stabilize them. We can’t afford to waste time looking for this imaginary spore,” Jamieson disagreed, planting a hip on the edge of the table and crossing his arms over his chest.
Nelson wasn’t swayed. Slamming his fist against the top of the table, the petri dishes danced under the force. Frank jumped out of his seat a good six inches but Jamieson did not flitch. “It’s not imaginary! It’s there, a new type of fungus I’ve never seen before. I think this fungus was in that cave. Harrison breathed it in. Before Lee passed out he said something about black slime, like tar, on the walls. I couldn’t figure what he was talking about, but he had to be talking about the cave walls. If we have any chance of finding a cure we need to go back to the cave and find that fungus.”
All conversation ground to a halt as the monitors on Rogers went wild. Jamieson snapped into action as Frank flew out of the chair straight for Rogers.
“Clear sickbay. Wendy, Chip, I need room in here,” Jamieson demanded.
“But Serena…” Wendy interjected but Jamie was already shaking his head, focusing on Rogers. “She’ll be fine for a few minutes. I need to stabilize him. Scram, all of you,” Jamie ordered, his tone such that not even the admiral would risk arguing.
Chip guided his sister into the corridor and Nelson followed, running a hand through his mussed hair, pacing the corridor and grumbling under his breath. Wendy leaned against the bulkhead, tilting her head back and trying not to think about death. It was one thing to see death, to see bodies, taking crime scene photos and look at bodies on an autopsy table. There was always a sense of detachment, that somehow that wasn’t a real person. But it was another thing to know the name, to know the face, and know who that person had been in life.
“Sir, this fungus, you think Lee and the others breathed it in?” Chip asked.
“I’m positive. It’s affecting their respiratory system, somehow blocking the absorption of oxygen into the blood stream and causing those lesions. If I can get my hands on a pure sample of this strain we can devise something to block the effects,” Nelson explained, his eyes bright with the prospect of finding a cure for his friend. He wasn’t about to give up on Lee, not now.
Chip rubbed at his forehead, feeling a headache coming on. He needed to be in the control room. He wanted to stay by Lee’s side but when the captain was down, command fell to him. Lee depended on him. He couldn’t let his friend down. “Sir, do you need me to prep the Flying Sub?”
Nelson nodded. “Get her ready. We don’t have time to waste.”
Chip didn’t like contradicting the admiral. That was Lee’s domain. Crane had no problem with telling the stubborn admiral that one thing or another was a bad idea. There wasn’t a crewman on board who didn’t have a story about the arguments between Lee and Nelson. But Lee wasn’t here to stand up to the admiral. “Sir, maybe Jamie’s right,” he began.
Nelson fixed him with that glare, the glare that looked through you and left burn-marks on the bulkhead. A glare that asked ‘what sort of insect are you to question me?’. Chip fought the urge to squirm and schooled his expression onto something completely neutral. Exec and admiral faced off.
“You think we should fly them out to a hospital.” Nelson’s stated.
“If it’s best for Lee and the others. What if you’re wrong? What if you can’t synthesize a cure?”
“And you don’t think I’ve asked myself that very question?” Nelson roared, furious at being questioned. “I won’t stand here and let Lee die, not when I can stop it. We have a choice. Control room, now—I need to know our position.”
Wendy stayed behind, waiting for access back into sickbay while Nelson and Chip headed back to the control room. Nelson barked for their current position and O’Brien quickly pointed their location out on the map. Nelson stared, mentally marking out where the nearest hospitals were. “If we fly them back to the States, given that I’d be flying out five bodies, we’re looking at several hours. If we fly back to the island, a co-pilot, and myself, we can be there in just a few hours. Time is important here, Chip.”
Chip feathered his hand up the back of his head, though his short wheat-blond hair. “I know, sir. I…we need to do what’s best for Lee.”
“I know, lad. I know how close you are to him. You have to understand that I don’t want to lose him either.”
Chip was at a lost for words. He understood Jamie’s logic but the admiral also made sense. The admiral’s instincts were seldom wrong, but Lee’s life was in Jamie’s hands he didn’t know what to say.
“Admiral Nelson. This is sickbay.” Jamieson’s voice sounded sad. Chip felt a tremor in his hands and noticed Nelson’s own shaking hand reach for the mike. “Nelson here. Go ahead sickbay.”
“Admiral, I need to see you. At once.”
“On my way.” Nelson replaced the mike. He locked eyes with Chip, blue into blue. “I’ll let you know,” he said and turned to mount the stairwell.
Chip braced his arms against the plot table. A wave of helplessness washed over him. There was simply nothing he could do. He could stand by and watch but there wasn’t anything he could to do help, one way or the other. If he followed the admiral’s suggestion then they all could die before they could find a cure. If they listened to Jamie there was no guarantee that taking them to a hospital would save their lives. The headache threatening earlier struck with the force of an atom bomb but he didn’t have time for it right now. “Mr. O’Brien,” Chip barked out. The younger officer spun around.
“Take the conn. I’m going to prep the Flying Sub.” O’Brien acknowledged the order and Chip headed for the hatch and down into the Flying Sub berth. Whatever the admiral decided on, at least the Flying Sub would be ready.
Jamieson pulled the blanket up over the still body of Rogers. Frank was quietly unhooking him from the various monitors. They had served their purpose and were no longer needed.
“His system shut down. Admiral, I don’t understand it. Lee, Kowalski, and Mitch are stable, as is Harrison over there. Other than a rise in their temperature.”
“A fever is the most common indicator that they are fighting an infection,” Nelson gently reminded the doctor.
“I know. And their white blood cell count confirms that. Admiral, if you are right and if this infection is a result of some kind of inhaled fungus, inhibiting the blood’s ability to absorb oxygen then taking them to a hospital won’t help them if they don’t have a cure.”
“Doctor, the skipper’s temperature just shot up another three points. Ski’s is up by two,” Frank said quietly, standing over Kowalski’s bunk. Like Lee, the young crewman was entirely too still for the doctor’s liking. It was unnatural.
“I know if we can find that fungus, then we can synthesize a cure. We still have a chance at beating this,” Nelson said defiantly.
Jamieson ran a hand through his own thinning hair, never doubting why there seemed to be less and less of it each day. “Then do it. It might be the only chance Lee and the others have.”
Nelson whirled to take his leave, pausing only at Lee’s bunk. He bent down, not even sure if Lee could hear him. “Son, I need you to hang on for me. We’re going to find a cure for this but you have to do your part. You have to fight this on your end. Meet me half way, lad.”
Lee Crane was still and silent. His condition had progressed beyond merely needing oxygen. He’d been intubated, the tube forcing his lungs to function leading out of the corner of his mouth to the machine that pumped air in and out. Lee hated being intubated, as many times as he’d undergone the procedure. He always claimed that it made his throat sore for days afterward and he sounded like a frog. Chip always teased him that he could sing bass if he got bored. Nelson shook his head, shaking the cobwebs free. He forced himself to pull away from his friend, reminding himself that this was for Lee.
Jamieson watched as the admiral vanished out the door. For a long breath Jamieson felt his age, the weight of years and countless lost battles with the specter of death. He was determined that he wasn’t going to lose this battle. Slowly he made his way to Harrison’s bunk and Wendy who sat on watch by her side. Like Lee, her condition had also deteriorated and she was breathing only with the help of the respirator. The rash had spread, climbing up her neck and spreading over her arms and the backs of hands. “How is she so far?”
“About the same as earlier. She hasn’t come around since she last woke up.”
“Well, with the respirator doing the work of breathing for her she should be able to get some real rest. Just make sure her temperature doesn’t go any higher. We’ll have to break out the cold packs if they don’t level out soon.”
“Doctor, can the admiral really make a cure for this thing? I’ve heard Chip’s stories about the admiral, and I know the stories that circulate about him, but…” Wendy trailed off, not certain how to finish. But Jamieson favored her with a smile.
“One thing you will learn if you associate with the likes of Harriman Nelson for very long. There are a number of words that the man simply doesn’t know. ‘Can’t’, ‘no’, and ‘failure’ just happen to be on the top of my list. Don’t dare tell him he can’t do something. And don’t suggest something is impossible. I’ve seen him work miracles. Beside, there’s an added factor involved.”
Wendy tilted her head, glancing toward Lee. “He thinks a lot of Lee, doesn’t he?”
“More than you know.” With that quiet remark, Jamieson walked toward the bunks holding Lee, Kowalski and Mitch. Wendy wanted to say something but she knew she’d end up sounding like some star-struck child. She understood how the admiral felt.
Francis wasn’t entirely sure why he was along. The admiral was piloting and so far he hadn’t spoken. Sharkey thought maybe he was along for extra ballast. That’s what he felt like at any rate.
Nelson was completely focused on the flight. Everything Sharkey thought of to possibly start a conversation sounded lame and trite compared with the fact that Ski, Mitch and the skipper back onboard Seaview, maybe dying. The chief knew they were hoping to get samples of that fungus the guys had breathed in. Word had already gotten out that even if the skipper survived, his lungs would be too scarred for him to dive. That lady scientist they picked up, she already had irreparable lung damage. He couldn’t even imagine the skipper not being able to dive. Everybody knew that the skipper was part fish. He’d make any excuse to max out his dive time. The thought that he wouldn’t be able to dive anymore…Sharkey simply could not wrap his head around it. If the skipper couldn’t dive would he be able to keep Seaview? If this fungus didn’t kill him, losing Seaview certainly would.
“We’re coming up on the island, sir,” Francis ventured, studying the radar and the coordinates.
“We’re making good time,” The admiral replied quietly. Sharkey clamped his jaws shut before some inane comment worked its way out. The last thing he wanted to do was antagonize an already on-edge and notoriously temperamental admiral.
On the horizon, the islands began to take shape. Nelson adjusted their course and brought them down on the ocean’s surface, beaching the small craft on the same beach they’d used before. Nelson began to shut the systems done and Sharkey unbuckled and slid out of the seat. He made a beeline for the stowage lockers, retrieving the gear he’d loaded before takeoff.
The admiral wasn’t taking any chances. Along with the respirator units he’d order that the biohazard gear also be loaded, and there was a crate of sample tubes. Sharkey wanted to ask how much of this stuff was the admiral planning on taking back but he stopped himself. The skipper’s life was on the line here. The admiral wanted plenty of material to work with, without having to worry about if he had enough.
Sharkey gathered up everything and followed Nelson out of FS1 and up the beach. There wasn’t much left of the camp. Most of them had probably evacuated when the Orinoco came back to transport the bodies back to the States. Their arrival had been noted though and someone came jogging down the hill to meet them. It was Bob Thompson, the paleoseismologist that Nelson had spoken to earlier.
“Admiral, wasn’t expecting you to come back. How’s Dr. Harrison?”
“Bad,” Nelson began without preamble. “She and four of my men breathed in some kind of fungus in that cave system. It’s already killed one of them. I need samples if we’re going to synthesize a cure. I need to get inside that cave.”
“That’s impossible,” Thompson replied.
Nelson stared. “And why is that impossible?” he growled with a dangerous rumble.
Thompson took an involuntary step backward. “We sealed the cave, right after you left. There was another tremor and for the most part the entire system just—disintegrated. Took out part of the cliff face and opened the whole north side of the bluff to the sea.”
Nelson felt sick to his stomach. He’d come all this way…this was his only chance to help Lee and the others…it couldn’t be happening this way.
“You mean that whole cave system is just gone?” Sharkey asked, keep one eye on the admiral. The older man suddenly wasn’t looking so good.
“It’s gone. The only way you’re going to get in, even if you could find a way in, is in a wetsuit,” Thompson said. “It’s completely wiped out.”
Nelson began pacing, running his hand through his auburn hair in agitation. This couldn’t be the end, he couldn’t just walk out of here and watch Lee die. Harrison deserved a little more effort for what she’d already been through. Abruptly Nelson spun around to face Thompson, the tail of an idea in his head. “You mentioned something about a microbiologist,” Nelson snapped.
Thompson raised an eyebrow. “Yes. Kenner. John Kenner, he was from ECU. He and Ragland were tight after we found the cave. They spend a whole day taking soil and rock samples.” Thompson suddenly realized what he had said and with a quick motion to follow, he turned and dashed back up the hill, Nelson and Sharkey close behind. At the top of the hill, Thompson darted into the tent and attacked a stack of crates piled in the corner. Nelson held his breath, offering a silent prayer to every god he’d ever read about. All he needed was one sample, one pure sample…
“Ah-ha!” Thompson exclaimed, turning to face the two men with a small box. He sat the box down on the table and flipped the lip open. Inside were about a dozen small covered petri dished. Some had soil samples and others had rock, but four of the dishes held a black, gooey substance. It clung to the side of the dish with a black inky tenacity. Nelson held the dishes up to the light and smiled.
“Looks like…tar,” Sharkey observed.
Nelson’s smile broadened. “That’s exactly what the skipper said.”
The waiting was the worst part. Chip glanced at his watch again. He was pretty sure that time had come to a complete stop. It felt like days since the admiral and Sharkey had returned but by his watch it was barely three hours. Chip was chaffing with the inactivity and he glanced up, scanning the control room for O’Brien. The younger man noticed the action and casually made his way forward.
“Sir, you won’t be missed if you need to take a walk and get out of the control room for a few minutes. No seamounts in the area and no whales.”
Chip laughed quietly. “Alright, Bob. Take the conn. Maintain our present course and speed. I’ll be in sickbay.”
“Aye, sir,” O’Brien replied as Morton climbed the stairwell. Once Morton was out of earshot, Bob sighed deeply and sagged against the plot table. From somewhere in the control room a cheeky crewman had the nerve to utter, ‘nice job,’ to which the entire watch let out a low laugh. Bob was quick to squash the amusement but not destroy the mood. “Laugh now. Just don’t let the exec hear about it,” he replied.
Chip headed for sickbay at a brisk walk but trying not to appear in a hurry. He entered Doc’s domain to finding things quiet except for the soft noise of the various monitors. He saw Jamieson at his desk, looking over several folders. The doctor’s eyes flicked upwards, registering Morton’s entry.
“Chip,” he greeted quietly.
“I heard about Rogers. I’m sorry,” Chip said. News traveled fast on the sub but this was the first time Chip had been to Sickbay since he heard about the crewman’s death. Chip knew that Jamieson took personal responsibility for Rogers’ death. He and Lee were a lot alike in that aspect, taking responsibility when there was nothing that could have been done in the first place.
“I don’t understand how I can keep Mitch, Ski and Lee alive, not to mention Harrison who was exposed for far longer than these three, and yet Rogers dies. I did the same thing for him that I did for the others,” Jamieson said, obviously still troubled by the young man’s death.
Frank cleared his throat, standing up from taking Ski’s vitals. “Doc, I don’t know if it helps, but Rogers had a penicillin allergy. You had him on a different antibiotic than the others.”
Jamieson blinked. Chip saw the light of understanding flash though Jamieson’s blue eyes. “Penicillin…is derived from a fungus, Of course, why didn’t I think of that…” he muttered, moving toward the microscope on the table. “Frank, I need a blood sample, I don’t care whose,” he snapped, grabbing for a tray of slides. He thumbed through the collection and picked the one he wanted. Chip moved closer to see what the doctor was doing. Jamieson slid the glass rectangle under the lens and bent down to examine it. “If the admiral is right and they have inhaled some type of fungus, it’s possible, just possible mind you, that we’re fighting fire with fire,” Jamieson explained as he focused the microscope.
Frank appeared with a test tube of blood. “I took this from Harrison,” he explained.
“Prepare me a slide,” Jamie ordered as he continued to study the slide. Frank worked quickly and in a few seconds he slid a second glass slide across the table. Jamie picked it up with long fingers and inserted it into the second microscope for comparison. There was no doubt as he examined each slide. The second was different from the first.
“Frank, I want each one of them on the strongest penicillin-derived antibiotic we have on hand. As high a concentration as they can handle. We might have gotten a break.”
“A cure?” Chip dared to breath and Jamieson smiled—a real, honest smile.
“Not a cure exactly but maybe a roadblock. It might be enough to buy the admiral some time. This antibiotic, derived from a fungus, is acting as a blocker somehow, inhibiting the fungus already invading their body blocking the blood’s ability to absorb blood. That’s the simplified version at any rate. It’s not a total cure but like I said maybe I can buy us some time.”
Lee Crane felt like he was floating. He wasn’t in pain. That in itself was an odd bit of knowledge. It didn’t take a giant mental leap to figure out where he was. The smells of antiseptic, the muted sounds of Seaview around him were familiar enough. The mattress under him wasn’t his. Even though his eyes were closed he could tell the lighting wasn’t the lighting in his cabin. The last thing he remembered was standing on the last step of the stairwell, trying to breath and failing miserably. He had to be in sickbay.
With a mental groan at being stuck in his least favorite place on the boat, he had to admit that he was tired. Well, more than tired, he felt utterly exhausted! Like he’d run a marathon up a hill. Backwards. It seemed impossible to even move. He had to focus on each muscle. It was too much to move his body so he decided to focus on his hand. Curl his fingers. Make a fist—anything to win control of his body back.
The voice was familiar but it sounded like it was underwater, watery and garbled. Lee concentrated, certain that he knew who the owner of that voice was. He felt a hand wrap around his, feeling calloused fingers, the rough palm. “Son, if you can hear me squeeze my hand.”
Lee focused everything on his fingers, forced the muscles to obey him. He responded slowly, squeezing his hand as ordered. He felt an answering squeeze back. “That’s it, lad. Come back to us. Come on, son. Time for you to come home.”
The deep, concerned velvet voice gave Lee something to home in on. His eyelids felt like they weighed ten pounds apiece and it was like moving a mountain to open them. Finally he won the battle. At first everything was fuzzy. Two distorted points of blue topped by a haze of red centered in Lee’s line of sight. He blinked a few times and finally the blurred figured morphed into the face of Admiral Nelson.
“Admiral?” Lee croaked, the words sounding rusty and unused. Lee recognized the feeling in his throat and he knew at some point he’d been on a respirator. Well, at least he was off of it now. That was a good sign, wasn’t it?
“Welcome back, lad. How do you feel?” Nelson asked as he sank down into the chair by Lee’s side.
Lee didn’t have to think about it. “Tired.”
Nelson nodded. “I can imagine. You’ve had a rough few days.”
“Days?” Lee asked, frowning at the admiral.
“We hit port in sixteen hours. You’ve been unconscious since you collapsed in the control room two days ago,” Nelson explained.
“I…remember that. Why?” asked Lee.
“You and the other members of the rescue team had been exposed to a…mutated, I suppose is the best word…no. Isolated. An isolated fungus from that cave you rescued Dr. Harrison from. Harrison had been breathing it, and you and the others were exposed when you went in. Sharkey and I went back and gathered some samples, and we were able to find a cure for it. You’re going to be fine.”
“Ski?” Lee asked. Nelson leaned back so that Crane could see Patterson, sitting with Kowalski who was also flat on his back and sounding quiet rusty, from what Lee could hear.
“He came around a little before you did. Mitch is responding well and both have already had a steady stream of visitors. Even Harrison over there is doing better.”
“Why am I so tired? I’ve been ill before and I’ve never felt like this,” Lee commented.
Nelson smiled. “We believe that to be one of the side effects of the cure. As the fungus you inhaled is attacked by the white blood cells, there is a release of enzymes that are trapped in your muscles, triggering the fatigue. It will pass in a few days.”
“A few days?” Lee asked incredulously, trying to rise up but between his own body refusing to listen and Nelson pushing him back down, he gave up quickly.
“Yes, Skipper, a few days. You can’t walk across the floor right now much less take control of the conn, so just relax and let your body catch up for once. Let’s try something novel for a change; Listen to me.” Will Jamieson was leaning against the bunk frame. His arms were crossed over his chest but his eyes danced with amusement as he pretended to glower at Lee.
“I can’t lie around till we make port,” Lee argued, once more tying to rise up. His body still felt like it was made of lead but it was getting easier to move. Well, it would be if Jamie and the admiral hadn’t asserted their authority and physically pushed him back into the bunk. He relented and admitted that he was horribly outnumbered. However, he might be able to orchestrate a break out later. Chip would be by eventually. Then again, considering the stunt he’d pulled with Wendy, Chip might be inclined to leave him in Doc’s clutches…Lee sighed but stayed put.
“That’s better,” Jamieson observed with a grin, although he knew Lee was plotting something. He speared Lee with a look. “What’s going on under that curly head of yours?” he asked suspiciously. Lee flashed him an extremely innocent smile.
“Just thinking,” he answered.
“Well, stop it. This is sickbay, no plotting or scheming allowed. Admiral, the Boy-Wonder here needs some rest, as does the rest of my patients,” Jamieson pitched his voice louder and sweeping his gaze across the expanse of Sickbay. There were a few grumbles but the visitors all gathered themselves up leaving promises to return as soon as possible. Nelson was the last to stand.
“Good to have you back with us. You had us worried.”
Lee nodded and smiled back at his friend. “It’s good to be back.”
With his own promise to come back when doc allowed it, Nelson made his exit. Lee found himself watching Harrison and Wendy. A shadow fell over him and he glanced up to see Jamieson hovering over him. Without being asked, Lee pulled his right arm out from under the covers and extended it out so the doctor could check his pulse. Jamie only smiled.
“You’re learning,” he commented.
“How’s Harrison doing?” Lee asked.
“Well. She still has some breathing problems but those come from a prolonged exposure to the dust and the fungus.”
Lee’s expression darkened. “But you found a cure…” he began. Jamie nodded.
“We did but Lee, you have to remember she was breathing that air for more than ten hours. Some of that damage simply cannot be cured. I’ve got her on oxygen and that seems to be helping some.”
Lee’s expression saddened. “Doesn’t seem fair. It wasn’t her fault. She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. She shouldn’t have to bear the scars of Ragland’s faulty judgment.”
“Well,” Jamie spared the woman in question a quick glance, “If it’s any consolation, she seems to have made a friend. She and Wendy have hit it off quite well. They’ve been exchanging stories all afternoon since I took Harrison off the respirator. Those two worry me,” Jamieson added with a glance to the two women.
Lee frowned. “What on earth for?” he asked.
Jamieson rolled his eyes. “You haven’t heard the stories. You. Rest. Now. Just close your little eyes and relax or do you need an ‘incentive’?”
“Doc, you can keep you ‘incentives.’ I’ll behave. I promise.”
“Ha,” the doctor laughed. “That will be the day.”
Harriman Nelson finally retired to the confines of his cabin, the lights dimmed and the cool air a balm for the harrowing last few days. Nelson sank down into the chair behind the desk, his fingers tracing the outline of the shockproof, waterproof casing of the laptop on his desk. He left it closed, not ready to dive into the mess of email and institute memos at the moment. That could wait until tomorrow.
He’d managed to chase Chip Morton out of the conn. With Lee in Sickbay, Chip was convinced that he needed to be in the control room and Jamie was equally convinced that Morton needed to be in his bunk. But now that Lee was recovering, there wasn’t any reason Chip couldn’t hand off command to the night watch and let Moore take over.
He’d actually left Chip in Sickbay, Jamie using the excuse of checking Chip’s stitches. Chip would be able to see that Lee was recovering and that in time he’d be in top shape once more. Jamie would see to it that Morton eventually made it to his cabin. He’d already threatened to unleash the Morton sister on her brother if he didn’t comply. Nelson had to laugh at that match up. Gwendolyn was as capable in her way as her formidable brother.
From his shirt pocket Nelson withdrew a slender glass test tube. The label on the tube was in Frank’s neat handwriting. Harrison. S. It was part of the sample he’d been giving when trying to narrow down what had infected Lee and the others. Somehow this sample never made its way back to Jamie’s collection.
He was jumping to conclusions. There was a more—simple—explanation for the coincidences surrounding that young woman—the necklace, the dates, even her name: Serena. Possibly derived from the French word sirène, or the Italian sirena, both meaning mermaid. Elizabeth spoke French and Italian. She always did love mermaids…
Nelson pulled a ring of keys from his pocket and unlocked the top right hand draw on the desk. He dropped the vial into the drawer and closed it up, locking it before he dropped the keys back into his pocket. He’d decide how to proceed later when he had more information.
Leaning back in his chair, Nelson pondered the next step. Slowly, as if still thinking the idea over, he reached over and picked up the intercom off the edge of this desk. “Nelson to sickbay,” he said, trying not to sound as distracted as he felt.
“Doctor, if Agent Morton has some time, I’d like to see her in my cabin.”
“Yes sir. I’ll pass the word along and have someone escort her up.”
“Very well,” Nelson replied and dropped the intercom back to the edge of this desk. Was he making a mistake? Elizabeth might not appreciate someone snooping around in her past. But then, if Gwendolyn was as good as she was reputed to be, Liz would never know. And there were some things that Nelson needed answers to.
There was a quick knock on the door. “Enter,” Nelson said and the door opened. One of the day corpsman nodded to him and indicated Wendy enter the cabin. The corpsman didn’t hang around and left Wendy alone.
“If you would close the door, Agent Morton,” Nelson said.
Wendy was obviously puzzled but she did as she was asked. “Am I breaking some kind of obscure navy rule?” she asked.
Nelson indicated silently that she sit down. Cautiously she did, still puzzled. “Seaview is technically a civilian vessel. Occasionally we’re asked to act in conjunction with the navy. I actually have a personal request to make of you.”
Wendy kept her face neutral, a very close approximation of her brother but there was still more emotion in her eyes than Chip ever showed when he went cold. “If I can,” she said carefully.
“Don’t look so grim, Agent. This is right up your alley. I’ve done some research on you. You’ve got quite a reputation. University of Chicago, MIT, top five percent of your class, snapped by NCIS upon graduation, member of the Cyber-crimes division, worked your way up to field agent. And you’re how old? Early thirties?”
“You know so much about me then what could you need me for that you couldn’t find out for yourself? Sir?” Wendy asked cautiously. Something she had heard Chip once say echoed in her head: what Nelson wants, Nelson gets…
But Admiral Nelson just grinned at her. “It’s complicated.” He picked up a pen and on a pad of paper wrote a few lines. He ripped the top sheet off, folded the paper in half and slid the paper across the desk. Cautiously she picked the paper up and opened it. It didn’t escape her notice that Nelson also ripped off the second page of the pad, folded it into quarters and stuck it into his pocket. Any indentation left on the second page after writing on the first had just disappeared.
“And what is it you need me to do?”
“I want to know about that woman. Everything about her from that date to now: marriages, divorces, careers. Children.”
Wendy tucked the paper into the pocket of her gray slacks. “And you can’t do this on your own because…?”
“Because I am a very busy man, Agent Morton. I have a research institute to run and a pair of submarine officers who need constant supervision.”
Wendy couldn’t stop the laugh. “That is indeed a full time job,” she added quickly.
“You have no idea. I need someone I can trust, someone who can be discreet and not attract attention to themselves. I’ve worked with your brother and could not have designed a finer executive officer. I am hoping that I can trust you to not advertise that I’ve asked you to do this.”
For a long moment Wendy sat still, contemplating what this man was asking of her. It wasn’t illegal. It wasn’t outside the bounds of what she usually did. It was just a little odd. “When I compile the information you’re asking for, how would you like for me to…disclose…this information to you?”
“My personal assistant, Angie Watson. She’s used to dealing with my sometimes odd requests.”
“I understand,” Wendy said and got to her feet. Nelson, a gentleman from another time and place, also got to his feet and opened the door. “Sir, if I may venture one question,” she asked softly.
“Go on,” Nelson urged, curious as to what she wanted.
“What happened to Chip? He won’t talk to me and Lee respects Chip too much to give his secret away.”
“And you think that I’d tell you what your brother won’t?” Nelson ventured.
Wendy let out her breath in a huff. “It was worth a try. He’s my brother. I want to help him if I can.”
“Your brother is a…unique individual. I have the pleasure of being able to call him the finest exec I’ve never know, but he’s also a friend. If Chip has something to tell you, that’s between you and him. You should respect that.”
“I suppose I’ll have to. I just hate to see something bothering him and having him think he has to hide it from me. I’ve never seen Chip in his element before. He’s almost a different person. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was given this assignment. I learned more than I expected and I can see why my brother loves his job. You have more than just employees here, Admiral. I’ve seen and worked with a lot of teams. Your crew, they just aren’t crew. They’re…family? Closer than family even. It must be…it must make you proud…” Wendy couldn’t find the words but Nelson was smiling.
“It does make me proud. You can’t know some of the things this crew has done. These are the finest men I know. They would do anything I needed, anything that Lee or Chip might need of them. They would follow those two anywhere. It’s hard to command that kind of respect.”
Wendy smiled. “I do understand, Admiral. Believe me, I do.”
“Please? Can I go now?”
Chip heard the plaintive tone in his friend’s voice and grinned. He was leaning against the doorframe of Sickbay, watching as Jamie gave Lee what looked like a complete physical. While Lee whined, from the sound of it.
Will Jamieson wasn’t in a particular hurry. “Relax Skipper. Just making sure the vaccine is continuing to work and that your lungs are maintaining their elasticity. The new x-rays are to make sure the lesions are clearing up.”
Lee rolled his eyes and dropped his hands into his lap. He was dressed only in the pale green pajama bottoms while the long sleeved shirt was draped over the edge of the exam table. “It’s cold in here, doc. Can we move this along?” Lee asked.
From the back of
the Sickbay a giggle rose in pitch. Chip glanced up to see Dr. Harrison propped
up in her bunk, with Wendy seated at the side. Harrison was doing the giggling.
”So just how cold is it? I don’t know about you but I think it’s getting pretty warm,” she said as another giggle bubbled up.
“That’s enough, Dr. Harrison,” Jamie said, with a long suffering sigh as he walked back and drew the curtain dividing the sickbay in half. From behind the curtain a disappointed and oddly familiar sounding ‘humph’ echoed followed by a plaintive “I never have any fun.” Jamie snorted. “She’s been in a good mood for most of the morning. An extremely good mood.” Jamie explained. “The last blood test indicates her mood is a direct result of one of the meds I have, correction, had her on.”
“Oh, an allergy to medication, who’d have thought?” Lee needled his friend. Chip grumped and rolled his eyes.
“It’s not my fault. You think I like having an allergy to seven out of ten drugs?” he complained. His eyes flicked to the closed curtain, still thinking about the images in his head, those disjointed and misplaced memories that didn’t seem to have a home. Was it from his time missing in Peru? Did it have some connection to this Harrison woman?
“Can’t I have just a peek?” Serena’s voice oozed from behind the curtain. Chip had to fight off his own case of laughter as Wendy’s reasonable voice answered the intoxicated-sounding archaeologist.
“Captain Crane is kind of a shy guy, Serena. Not really into that kind of stuff,” Wendy explained.
“Then who was the blond guy I saw the other day? The really built dude with the blue eyes? He was cute,” Serena asked, apparently not aware that sounds traveled, especially at the volume she was speaking.
Chip felt the color creeping up his neck while Lee smiled innocently. “Hey, Chip. Hear that? You’re cute,” commented Lee with an evil gleam.
“Are you two at it again?” Admiral Nelson’s voice asked from the doorway. Both men straighten instinctively.
“He started it,” both officers said in concert.
Nelson chuckled as he leaned against the doorframe, mimicking Chip’s earlier stance, with his hands in his pockets. “Are you sure you two aren’t related?” he asked, still amused.
Jamie snorted as he stood up and crossed his arms over his chest. “Maybe not by blood but they both have a dandy father figure. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Jamie replied before heading for his office.
From behind the curtain Harrison’s voice sang out once again. “I’ve heard that line before! My mother used to say that!”
Jamieson was quick to intercede. “Admiral, she’s not very coherent. She’s having an odd reaction to the cortisone I had her on for the dislocated shoulder and the earlier breathing problems.”
Nelson was heading for the back of Sickbay when Jamieson’s words stopped him short. “She’s not…it’s not the same kind of reaction I had, is it?”
“Absolutely not. She…Dr. Harrison is in a very good mood,” Jamieson said. An odd look came over Nelson and he pulled the curtain. He found the young woman in question sitting up and looking as innocent as someone hopped up on pain meds could look. She blinked bright green eyes at him and smiled.
“Oh, you have a lot of stars. I’ll bet you’re in charge,” she said tartly with a grin.
Wendy leaned over. “This is Admiral Nelson. This is his submarine.”
“Oooh. A rich admiral. Wen, you got connections,” Harrison intoned. Nelson found himself smiling and trying not to show it. He wanted to ask her about her mother but not here, not now. Instead he turned away, focusing his attention back on Lee and Chip.
“Lee, we reach port in two hours,” Nelson said.
Lee shot Jamie a look. The doctor gave Lee an innocent smile. “Are you waiting for something, Lee?”
Lee extended his arms and looked down at himself. “I’m still in sickbay greens,” he observed dryly. Behind him Nelson was covering his mouth, trying not to laugh. Even Chip was grinning. Jamieson tilted his head slightly and continued to watch Lee.
“Well?” Lee urged.
“Well,” Jamieson echoed, “You’d look really odd standing in the control room in greens. I’m sure the watch would appreciate seeing you in uniform.” Jamieson replied calmly.
“Jamie, I owe you,” Lee chirped, slid off the table, and vanished out the door. Chip, still chortling, inclined his head toward the quickly departing skipper.
“I’d better go and make sure he doesn’t trip on a hatchway or something,” Chip said and Nelson tactfully waved him off.
The sickbay emptied of two people and Jamie, still chuckling, walked back to his desk, leaving Nelson at loose ends for the moment. He turned and watched Chip’s sister talking quietly with Harrison. Quietly he moved toward the small office. “I take it that Harrison and Chip’s sister are getting along well?”
“Oh yes. Very well. Sort of reminds me of a pair of officers. They tend to come and go around here, you might have seen them from time to time.”
“I think I know the pair you mean,” Nelson replied. “So, you plan on transferring her to Santa Barbara General?”
Will nodded. “Her mother is flying in to meet her and that seemed like the best idea. I have connections there. Unless you have a better idea?”
“No, no, you’re the doctor. I’m just a rich admiral,” Nelson replied with humor.
“Sure you are. Maybe you’d better go down to the control room and make sure those boys of yours don’t run us into the dock or something.”
Nelson continued to chuckle as he slowly meandered out of Sickbay. “My boys, hmmm?”
“That’s right, admiral. Like I said. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
 From the poem “Who Hath Desired the Sea” by Rudyard Kipling
 See the short story “Twist of Fate”
 The study of caves.
 My way of explaining that wedding ring that turned up in the latter half of the show. Chip married an actress and she could not cope with his lifestyle. She cheated on her husband and Chip filed for divorced. Once more, this idea was dreamed up before I had access to much research on the actors.
 Mutiny. Season One: Vol.2: Disk1: Side A